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Taking Advantage of the State of the Union

For Presidents Facing Tough Race, Speech Offers a Chance for Them to Campaign

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Pool

For an incumbent president on shaky ground in his bid for a second term, the election-year State of the Union address offers a unique opportunity to kick off the campaign.

Since 1948, incumbents facing tough races used the well of the House floor as only they can, transporting their bully pulpits down Pennsylvania Avenue.

President Barack Obama is in a situation different from other presidents, facing a divided Congress in his re-election year. Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton contended with chambers led by the opposition. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush worked with both chambers controlled by their own parties.

In a way, Obama faces the worst of both worlds, a House under the rule of the opposition party, which can work its will, and a Democratic-controlled Senate whose leaders struggle to assert control because of rules that require the cooperation of the minority.

Perhaps this is what is behind Obama’s recent dictums that he will exercise as much authority as possible outside the confines of Congress. He’s not alone in his frustration with Congress. One of the elder Bush’s better laugh lines from his 1992 address was, “I myself have sometimes thought the aging process could be delayed if it had to make its way through Congress.”

Those six predecessors brought different approaches to their State of the Union addresses in tone and content. The re-election record is split down the middle: Three won, three lost.

Truman reminded the audience of two prominent successes he was associated with: ending the Great Depression and winning World War II.

“As we examine the state of our Union today, we can benefit from viewing it on the basis of the accomplishments of the last decade and of our goals for the next,” Truman said.

Truman and the Republican majorities elected in 1946 fought over everything from Social Security to health care and taxes.

As 1948 dawned, he doubled down on the Democratic Party’s agenda in his address, saying the makings of a “glorious future” would depend on how far the country went toward five goals: human rights, the social safety net, developing natural resources, economic development and world peace.

His speech laid out legislation Truman likely knew had no chance of passing a GOP Congress: everything from building more dams to creating a national health care program and raising taxes on corporations.

When it stalled, he ran against what he called the “do-nothing, good-for-nothing 80th Congress.” He won, defeating Thomas Dewey.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford employed what he called a “new realism” that would not sugarcoat things.

It’s a speech reflecting the era’s anxieties, one recovering from the turmoil of Watergate, Vietnam and the oil supply shocks. The previous year, 1975, opened with “rancor and bitterness,” he said. “Ours was a troubled land.”

And it was still troubled, he said.

“Just a year ago, I reported that the state of the union was not good. Tonight, I report that the state of our union is better — in many ways a lot better — but still not good enough.”

The bulk of his speech was dedicated to domestic affairs. Ford proposed a mix of spending cuts and tax cuts and getting rid of some of the “petty tyranny of massive government regulation,” all proposals that would be at home in the 2012 GOP presidential primary race.

He also proposed tax increases to shore up Social Security and higher Medicare premiums to institute catastrophic health insurance for the elderly.

Ford’s was a sober, deliberate speech about what the country needed, from his perspective, to progress. He lost to Carter.

Four years later, Carter employed some of the same realism. The first lines of the speech stated baldly: “This last few months has not been an easy time for any of us.” What followed was an outline of bad news: the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, energy shortages.

Carter didn’t ask Congress for much. He put it, and the American people, on notice that he was ready to take charge: boycott the Moscow Olympics, reinstitute the draft, impose gasoline rationing. He quoted Walter Lippmann, saying: “You will have to sacrifice your comfort and ease.”

He wrapped up by telling a Congress controlled by his own party that “our challenges are formidable.” He lost to Ronald Reagan in November.

But being upbeat doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory, either.

George H.W. Bush was in triumphant form in 1992. He cracked jokes, including at his own expense: He had recently projectile-vomited at the dinner table during a diplomatic trip to Japan, and he kicked off the speech with a reference to this.

He had reason to be in a good mood. He boasted of two big foreign policy wins: the Persian Gulf War and the end of the Cold War that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

These changes of “biblical proportions” would enable the United States to take responsibility as the world’s sole superpower. “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America,” he said.

He also offered a lengthy economic plan, from extending the research and development tax credit to the North American Free Trade Agreement to “record expenditures” for Head Start to huge defense cuts that would lead to the “peace dividend.”

Bush’s catalog of success and detailed proposals echoed Truman’s. But his fate differed. He lost to Bill Clinton.

In Clinton’s 1996 address, he famously declared, “The era of big government is over,” a reflection of the rightward turn of U.S. politics and his use of triangulation, in which he positioned himself in contrast to an unpopular Congress.

The GOP had reclaimed both chambers of Congress in 1994.

It was an address geared toward the domestic. This is where the calls for the television v-chip and school uniforms came from.

But Clinton also reminded the audience of his recent battle with the GOP over the 1996 budget and the government shutdown that resulted.

In telling the story of Richard Dean, a Social Security Administration employee in Oklahoma City who rescued victims of the 1995 bombing and then worked through the shutdown, Clinton said, “On behalf of Richard Dean and his family, and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this chamber: Never, ever shut down the federal government again.” He went on to easily defeat Kansas GOP Sen. Bob Dole.

President George W. Bush, after a quick nod to foreign policy, pivoted to domestic affairs, unveiling a long list of policy prescriptions. First and foremost was his proposal to change the Social Security system. His proposal was to create personal retirement accounts within the system.

After his re-election he returned to this plan in the following year's State of the Union, preceded with a long windup about the financial strain the system was under. He quoted Democrats, from Clinton to Sens. John Breaux (La.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.), to make his case.

But even though he had defeated Sen. John Kerry in November, his proposal stalled. Under withering Democratic criticism and a lukewarm GOP push, it went nowhere.

The same could be said of two other high-profile proposals Bush made in his address: a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage and a plan to reform the immigration system. Neither made it through either Republican or Democratic Congresses.

So Obama has plenty of company. His predecessors faced some of the same issues: flagging economies, foreign policy wins, recalcitrant lawmakers. But there is hardly a consensus way forward on what can be the opening salvo in his re-election campaign, the State of the Union. Congress, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, broadcast audiences and voters await.

Correction: Jan. 23, 2012
An earlier version of this story misstated the year President George W. Bush made a lengthy case to change the Social Security system. Although Bush proposed the plan in his 2004 State of the Union address, his lengthier argument to do so was made the following year, in his 2005 address.

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