Obama’s State of the Union Surprises

By not giving members of Congress a copy of the speech beforehand, the president surprised even his fellow Democrats with his policy initiatives.

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President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013.

Give credit to the White House for smart stagecraft in setting up the most dramatic moment of last night's State of the Union address, President Obama's electric exhortation that victims of gun violence deserve a vote on gun control measures.

It seems that part of the reason the moment worked so well as theater was because it was a surprise. Ordinary practice is for member of Congress to get copies of the prepared remarks of the State of the Union address as they enter the chamber. Members often then read ahead in the speech as the president is delivering it. Last night they were instead given pamphlets outlining the Obama economic plan, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar recalled this morning. "Part of why it was so dramatic is we didn't have the speech, so no one was sitting there reading ahead," she said.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Did Obama's State of the Union Gun Rhetoric Effectively Sell Gun Control to Congress?]

That was very smart on the White House's part—it kept the genuine emotion of the moment and husbanded the power of the bully pulpit.

And that wasn't the only instance where Democrats in the room were taken by surprise, according to Klobuchar and others who spoke at a post-State of the Union panel organized by The Atlantic and National Journal.

Take Obama's renewed call for raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. "We were all surprised," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat and her party's chief deputy whip. "I don't know to what extent our top leadership was prebriefed about this coming. It was not discussed at any of our caucus meetings." Texas Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro also called the minimum wage increase "something nobody expected before the speech."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Schakowsky also cited Obama's call for universal preschool as "another one that came as sort of a surprise to some extent."

I can't remember how standard it is for members of the president's party to be taken by surprise by major policy initiatives in a State of the Union speech, but—especially in a day and age when everything seems to get leaked or at least trial ballooned in order to make sure everyone is working off the same messaging plan—this strikes me as out of the ordinary. And to the extent that it is, it was smart planning by the White House communications team and a good way to put some of the force back into what is often a too dull affair.

Spoiler alert: Sometimes spoilers actually spoil.

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