The Constitution says the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."
The Constitution does not say the president must pass those measures. Appearing on NPR’s Jan. 28 "Morning Edition," political scientists Donna Hoffman and Allison Howard said, of President Obama’s 41 proposals to Congress in his 2013 speech, only three passed: Congress did not default on the national debt, it funded the government, and it renewed the Violence Against Women Act.
Not exactly crowning legislative achievements. CEOs with such records would be fired. And, according to the political scientists, Obama’s performance during his presidency has been average. One year, President Reagan only passed five percent of his requests.
Could the State of the Union be made less a waste of time? I asked a cross section of Arkansas executive types how they go about communicating their organization’s goals, and how they would differ in their approach to the speech.
Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, offered the "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" perspective.
"The State of the Union enables the president of the United States to engage public dialogue on his list of priorities, which in itself is a significant annual accomplishment," he wrote.
The others offered more specific fixes. Matt Crafton, CEO of Crafton Tull, one of the state’s largest engineering firms, wrote that people must hear a concept several times before it sinks in, so his company finds numerous and creative ways to communicate with its employees.
As for the State of the Union, he wrote, "In general, to help people grasp the agenda, I would keep it to a list of no more than five simply stated over-arching goal areas. Under each area you could list a few examples of specific initiatives."
So step one from our Arkansas executives: Keep it simple.
Mike Poore, Bentonville Public Schools superintendent, said that when he presents a strategic plan to his school board and community, his goal is to be 90-95 percent successful. He would emphasize the importance of youth as an asset and focus on only a few objectives.
"I think that I would be trying to in the State of the Union share that here are three things that, no doubt about it, I have a high level of confidence that this country wants these things to happen, and we’re going to collaborate, and we’re going to make that a reality," he said.
Step two: Prioritize the possible.
As president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, Mike Malone coordinates economic and community development activities in the state’s most prosperous region. In 2010, the council created a strategic plan with 56 goals. So far, it’s completed or made progress on 53 – a much better record than presidents have had. Malone said he tries to communicate broadly about quality of life, education, and economic development issues, rather than getting too specific unless it’s necessary.
"We talk about a lot of our goals and projects and always tie them back to economic competitiveness," he said. "It’s the jobs."
So step three: Focus on shared values, like jobs, as Malone does, or youth, as Poore does.
Kevin Thompson, lead pastor of Fort Smith’s Community Bible Church, said he would announce agreements already privately made with members of Congress rather than spring policy proposals on everyone out of the blue. If no agreement has been made, he would call upon senators from each party to lead a task force to address a problem.
Thompson said as a pastor he must explain how policy details are part of a greater vision. "As a leader, it is my job to consistently repeat the ‘why’ of what we are doing," he said.
The "why" is step four.
Sam Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith, said senior managers annually present written plans for their divisions to him and to employees and must discuss what happened to last year’s plan.
"I believe time should be taken to discuss what was not accomplished in the prior year that was in the prior year’s plan, and explain how it will be accomplished this year," he said.
Step five: Take responsibility for last year’s speech. If it was important last year, it probably should be important this year.
So keep it simple, prioritize the possible, focus on shared values, explain the "why," and take responsibility.
That’s five, which is the same number Crafton suggested.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.