The task is difficult for several reasons. The responder has second billing, (usually) no live audience, and must respond to a carefully prepared address that has been delivered just moments before. Stylistically, the responder must be critical of the President. It is de rigueur for Presidents to project optimism in their SOTU speeches, and it is difficult for such a response to burst the optimism established by the President while simultaneously establishing a competing cheerful vision.
As if this task wasn't impossible enough, it is also necessary to lay out one's criticisms and alternative visions in a way that that is psychologically accessible to non-ideological voters. If you pull out the usual trick phrases from your ideological bag of tricks, you'll find that they don't work as well with swing voters.
But regardless of the difficulties, that is the established task. And while Congressman Ryan did a respectable job criticizing the President with his bulletproof logic, the few sunny statements he made seemed bolted on like miscellaneous body parts on Heidi Montag.
We got a promissory note that the upcoming budget will "cut spending to get the debt down… help create jobs and prosperity … and reform government programs". We heard sincere yet vague talk about the Declaration, the Constitution, and the vision of self reliance and limited government.
Great. So what?
We believe a renewed commitment to limited government will unshackle our economy and create millions of new jobs and opportunities for all people, of every background, to succeed and prosper. Under this approach, the spirit of initiative – not political clout – determines who succeeds.
I wholeheartedly believe every word of this. And there's no doubt in my mind that Paul Ryan does too. And yet, many will see this as empty rhetoric. More importantly, success and prosperity are necessarily vague terms. Tuesday evening quite a few of us poked fun at Obama's vision of teachers accessing their high-speed wireless internet on bullet trains while sitting next to gay ROTC recruits, but Obama presented an accessible vision.
This is an inherent weakness in selling a dynamic, unpredictable, freedom-loving system; government can't project a specific vision into the future.
If I was re-writing this speech, I'd address some scenarios voters might find themselves in --starting a new business, planning for retirement, looking for a job, sending children to college, filling a gasoline tank, etc. -- and contrast the consequences of the Obama plan/vision against a brighter future enabled by potential conservative governance. Even a metaphor such as Tim Pawlenty's "cash bar at a wedding" bit would have been useful. The listener must find him/herself engaged in a contemplation of the future that the speaker is guiding.