How Second-Term Presidents Scratch the 6-Year Itch
Second-term presidents delivering their sixth State of the Union addresses take a variety of approaches: wonkiness, bragging about their accomplishments, distancing themselves from scandals, joking at their own expenses and/or commemorating American heroes.
“The intermediate ballistic missiles, Thor and Jupiter, have already been ordered into production,” Dwight D. Eisenhower told the 85th Congress on Jan. 9, 1958.
“One year of Watergate is enough,” Richard Nixon declared to the 93rd Congress on Jan. 30, 1974.
“We paused together to mourn and honor the valor of our seven Challenger heroes,” Ronald Reagan said before the 99th Congress on Feb. 4, 1986, just days after the space shuttle disaster rocked the nation.
“I will submit to Congress for 1999 the first balanced budget in 30 years,” Bill Clinton told the 105th Congress on Jan. 27, 1998.
“This year, the first of about 78 million baby boomers turn 60, including two of my dad’s favorite people — me and President Clinton. This milestone is more than a personal crisis. It is a national challenge,” George W. Bush told the 109th Congress on Jan. 31, 2006.
Whether the State of the Union address has any effect on voters’ mood is debatable, but one thing is clear: Almost without exception, the president’s political party takes a beating later on in the year.
Since the end of World War II, six men have been re-elected president and have delivered a State of the Union less than two years later, at the beginning of the next congressional election year.
With the exception of just one of those chief executives, Clinton, the voters were not kind to the president’s party in the midterms.
Eisenhower, the war hero who presided over a massive expansion of the U.S. economy in the 1950s, saw his fellow Republicans, already in the minority at the start of the 85th Congress, slip further nearly into oblivion in both chambers. After the 1956 elections, Democrats held a 232-203 majority in the House and a 49-47 edge in the Senate. In the 1958 election, 10 months after Ike’s address, the Democrats won 283 House seats to the GOP’s 151 and pushed their Senate majority to the stratospheric level of 65 seats. Americans might have still liked Ike, but they had no such love for his party.
At the start of 1974, just over one year after being re-elected in a landslide over Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., Nixon was barely holding onto power because of the Watergate scandal engulfing his administration. Yet Nixon delivered a confident speech, listing accomplishments such as the thawing relations with China, environmental victories and cutting the defense budget. He dismissed “the perennial prophets of gloom” who predicted a recession and referred to “these final three years of my administration” and “the eight years of my presidency.” He even wrapped himself in the cloak of his mortal enemy from 1960: “It was 27 years ago that John F. Kennedy and I sat in this chamber, as freshmen congressmen hearing our first State of the Union address delivered by Harry Truman. I know from my talks with him, as members of the Labor Committee on which we both served, that neither of us then even dreamed that either one or both might eventually be standing in this place that I now stand and that he once stood in, before me.”
Nixon saved his statement about Watergate having gone on long enough for the very end of his address, and also freely admitted, “It would be an understatement if I were not to admit that the year 1973 was not a very easy year for me personally or for my family.”
The worst was yet to come. Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, and the GOP, already in the minority, endured a bludgeoning, further solidifying Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats gained dozens of seats, almost cracking 300 on the strength of the Watergate Babies class (they won 292 seats on Election Day) and pushed their Senate majority to 60, then 61 after the contested New Hampshire contest was settled and Democrat John Durkin was sworn in on Sept. 18, 1975.
In 1986, Reagan helped steady a nation shaken by the Challenger explosion and used his State of the Union to praise the American public while damning the capital, a playbook that remains in heavy rotation today.
“Let us begin where storm clouds loom darkest — right here in Washington, D.C.,” the Gipper said, even as he praised the “American people” who “brought us back with quiet courage and common sense, with undying faith that in this nation under God the future will be ours” — with a healthy mixture of a strong defense, tax cuts and a taming of the federal government. He also brought along four regular citizens — Richard Cavoli, Tyrone Ford, Shelby Butler and Trevor Ferrell — to hold up as exemplars of the American spirit for their talent, courage and compassion.
Nine months later, the Senate majority that Republicans won on his coattails in 1980 vanished, with the GOP’s 53 seats supplanted by the Democrats’ 55. In the House, Democrats added a few seats to their majority. Any congressional control of the agenda for the president’s party was over for the last two years of his term, which was quickly defined by the Iran-Contra affair and the 1988 presidential race.
Scandal can quickly drag down second-term presidents, and Clinton certainly had his share, starting with Whitewater and later the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Just the day before the 1998 State of the Union, Clinton had denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was expanding his investigation to include the Lewinsky issue.
Clinton delivered an address that ranged from nitty-gritty policy proposals such as calling for a renewal of fast-track trade negotiating authority to his trumpeting of his balanced budget.
His praise of members of Congress and the public were reminiscent of Reagan’s sunny ways. “We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way,” Clinton said.
What was to come that year in Congress wasn’t pretty. The impeachment debate largely took over, culminating in December with the House impeaching the president. In February 1999, the Senate acquitted him.
That impeachment fight, though, did not prevent Clinton’s party from increasing their share of seats in the House — from 207 at the beginning of the 105th Congress to 211 on Election Day 1998 — and holding steady in the Senate. The Democrats were still in the minority, but they avoided the historical trend of losses for the president’s party in his second round of congressional midterms. In the fallout, Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., resigned his seat. The irony is a stunning one: The impeached president stayed in office, was acquitted and saw his party gain House seats. His chief rival, Gingrich, headed for the private sector.
In 2004, Bush pulled off what eluded his father, George H.W. Bush: winning re-election. But by 2006, the war in Iraq and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina cast a pall over his State of the Union. The emphasis on Iraq and national security dominated Bush’s address, with the president showing an unapologetic approach to an unpopular conflict.
“In the coming year, I will continue to reach out and seek your good advice. Yet there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom, and second-guessing is not a strategy,” he said.
And although there were moments of levity, such as his reference to Clinton as one of his father’s favorite people, and some policy wonkdom (he called for more research into turning switchgrass into an energy source), the speech was weighted toward security concerns. New Orleans, still drying out and pulling itself together after Katrina and its subsequent floods, wasn’t mentioned until the very end of the speech, almost an afterthought.
In November, the voters took it out on Bush’s party, deposing the majority GOP in both chambers in favor of a solid Democratic majority of 232 seats and a razor-thin, 51-49, Democratic majority in the Senate.
As President Barack Obama addresses the nation Tuesday night, he’ll have an audience at his disposal that few public figures ever attain: the eyes and ears of the country and its most powerful figures. The millions of Americans listening to the speech — and their immediate reactions — will certainly be on his mind. The historical judgment will have to wait until November.