The State of the Union as Roadmap
Very few presidents get to do this: deliver a swan-song State of the Union at the end of eight years in office. Those who have done so tend to use it as a roadmap for their successors, regardless of political party.
Since the Feb. 27, 1951, ratification of the 22nd Amendment that limited presidents to two terms, only four chief executives have made it this far and had the chance to set the table for an election year in which they will not be running: Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. On Tuesday evening, the incumbent, Barack Obama, will join their ranks. Obama and the White House staff have emphasized how optimistic the president is and how his speech will take the long view. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest Monday said it will focus on the country’s “opportunities and challenges” well into the future, because Obama is aware of the effects decisions have through the generations. And that’s a sentiment shared by previous presidents in their final State of the Union addresses.
Amid the reminiscences, veto threats and defense of the Iraq troop surge in Bush’s final address on Jan. 28, 2008, the former Texas oil man told Congress: “Our security, our prosperity and our environment all require reducing our dependence on oil.”
He even said the U.S. should “take the next steps,” one of which was to “complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.”
Fast forward to the twilight of his successor’s administration, and one finds the United States signing the United Nations’ Paris climate change deal last month, which committed the world’s nations to reducing greenhouse emissions.
“Today, the American people can be proud — because this historic agreement is a tribute to American leadership,” Obama said.
Clinton and Bush like to joke they’ve become so close in their post-presidential years that they are brothers with a different mother. Reading their final addresses to Congress, they are also not as far apart on policy as you might think.
David Hawkings’ Whiteboard: State of the Union
On Jan. 27, 2000, Clinton asked Congress to keep in mind specific proposals, among them, “First, we should help faith-based organizations to do more to fight poverty and drug abuse and help people get back on the right track.”
Bush’s first executive order created the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, a version of which survives to this day in the Obama White House.
Clinton also called for “a new consensus on trade” and that “others must recognize that open markets and rule-based trade are the best engines we know of for raising living standards, reducing global poverty and environmental destruction, and assuring the free flow of ideas.”
He acknowledged that a globalizing trade system wasn’t without its ill effects, particularly on mature industries, but did affirm,”It’s the central reality of our time.”
Bush made trade agreements a key part of his agenda. In 2008, he thanked Congress for approving a deal with Peru and asked them to follow course on Colombia, Panama and South Korea, and to cushion any blows such deals had on U.S. workers.
“Trade brings better jobs and better choices and better prices. Yet for some Americans, trade can mean losing a job, and the federal government has a responsibility to help. I ask Congress to reauthorize and reform trade adjustment assistance so we can help these displaced workers learn new skills and find new jobs,” Bush said.
Clinton pointed out that in 1999, “ten times as many people died in AIDS as were killed in wars.” One of the proudest achievements of the Bush administration was its Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which Bush pointed out was treating 1.4 million people by the time 2008 rolled around, and for which he asked Congress to increase U.S. investment.
And Clinton also promised, “We will reverse the course of climate change and leave a safer, cleaner planet,” something not immediately embraced by Bush but echoed in his 2008 address.
Ronald Reagan prepared to leave office much as he began it: Extolling the American dream and chastising Congress for its lack of fiscal discipline. “As I indicated in my first State of the Union, what ails us can be simply put: The federal government is too big, and it spends too much money.”
Chief among its ills, Reagan said, was the annual budget process, particularly blown deadlines. “The budget process has broken down; it needs a drastic overhaul,” including a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and a line-item veto.
To anyone monitoring Congress over the years, some things never change: “Let’s remember our deadline is Oct. 1, not Christmas,” Reagan chided. “Let’s get the people’s work done to avoid a footrace with Santa Claus.”
Even though Clinton did not support a balanced budget amendment, and Congress failed to send one to his desk, among the outcomes of the mid-1990s budget wars was a balanced budget and even a surplus when Clinton left office. He did sign into law a line-item veto, but the courts subsequently overturned it.
A balanced budget is something each president aims for but rarely achieves. Just ask Eisenhower. Some of the issues he addressed did indeed become familiar to his successors — nuclear arms control, trade, education, Cold War politics.
One fiscal issue Ike bemoaned has remained a difficult issue for public officials: the federal debt limit. “In the management of the huge public debt the Treasury is unfortunately not free of artificial barriers. Its ability to deal with the difficult problems in this field has been weakened greatly by the unwillingness of the Congress to remove archaic restrictions,” he said on Jan. 7, 1960.
Perhaps such issues were on the mind of one of the presidents who didn’t make it to eight years, Lyndon Johnson.
“Unfortunately, the departure of an administration does not mean the end of the problems that this administration has faced. The effort to meet the problems must go on, year after year, if the momentum that we have all mounted together in these past years is not to be lost,” Johnson said in his benedictory State of the Union, in 1969.
Eyeing the exits in the days before Richard Nixon took office, LBJ didn’t need to give that speech on Jan. 14. But that statement stands as guidance to any chief executive pondering his place in the political world.
Contact Dick at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jasonjdick .
NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.