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Former HHS Secretary Details To How Make State Of The Union Response Stand Out


The State of the Union is Tuesday. And afterwards, there'll be a response from the opposing party. We're curious about how these responses come together and why they're so hard to, let's say, hit out of the park. So we turn now to someone who's given one, Kathleen Sebelius. She was governor of Kansas in 2008 when she gave hers and later became President Obama's Health and Human Services secretary, the architect of Obamacare. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Good to be with you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Former Georgia governor candidate Stacey Abrams will be speaking after the president this Tuesday night. And I guess the common sense advice is always be natural, be yourself, right? Remembering your response to President Bush in 2008, what's some advice you would have for Abrams?

SEBELIUS: Well, I would start by saying it's a very tough gig. You get lots and lots and lots of advice from lots and lots and lots of people.


SEBELIUS: It just caused me to be I think more and more frozen about what this possibly meant. I was governor at the time. So the setting I thought would be sort of comfortable. But by the time all the lights and camera and makeup and everything else gets there, it doesn't feel like you're in a natural setting at all. Stacey is a not only very gifted speaker but a very smart, strategic Democrat. And I think whatever she chooses to say, I'm sure she will say eloquently.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last year's respondent, Congressman Joe Kennedy, advises Abrams to misplace her Chapstick, of course, because his lips looked...

SEBELIUS: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...So shiny during his address. It was apparently all anyone could focus on. I'd like to know how these speeches come together. Aren't there people there to tell you that your lips are shiny? Who actually is in the room when you're giving this address?

SEBELIUS: In my case, it was some of my family members, lots of strangers, crews and lighting and makeup. And they sort of take over. It's - it's just a difficult venue to appear natural, to be calm, whatever. The speech that I gave was widely panned appropriately for being too wooden and too repetitive and too whatever. I did get a call from a good friend who said, but your makeup looked terrific.


SEBELIUS: I think he was searching for a compliment, and that's as close as he could get.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Keeping in mind all the grousing about how the State of the Union is less informative, that it's an infomercial for whoever - whatever president gives it, do you think the response is really necessary? Do you think it's - it's really a moment where you can engage the American people?

SEBELIUS: Well, I thought it was really interesting - at least if the numbers are accurate - that the last time the president spoke to the nation and delivered a national security speech, which was, again, you know, some kind of infomercial for a wall and his particular and, I would say, somewhat peculiar view of what national security is all about, the response had more viewers than did the president's address. Clearly...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there - they might have - they might have - there might have been a lot of people watching, but they were panned. I mean, people said that they looked strange and wooden. And also, is there - is there any way to really get a win out of this, I guess is the question.

SEBELIUS: I thought the visuals were a little odd. But there is visuals. There is the message. There's - I think there probably is a need for some kind of response. And probably, if you've got eyeballs on the president, you want to take advantage of that and give some alternate and maybe reality-based view of the world.

But the speech is clearly not meant as a refute to the State of the Union because you have no idea - particularly this time - no idea what it is that this president may actually suggest to the American people. I think the best you can do - and I think Stacey will do a great job delivering this - is a message that can serve as an alternative vision for the country and where we need to go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Thank you so much.

SEBELIUS: Great to talk to you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.