When President Barack Obama delivers his sixth State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, he is expected to address ways of combatting economic inequality, as well as reforming immigration and the NSA. Skilled orator though he is, Obama will have a tough time living up to many of his predecessors, whose State of the Union addresses uplifted the spirit and psyche of the country in hard economic and political times. Who should he emulate? We asked America's leading historians and political thinkers for their opinions on the best State of the Union addresses in history.
FDR, January 6, 1942. It’s not the best speech ever—and inaugurals, as a rule, are better than annual messages—but it was a terribly painful moment, and it’s got this fine line: "The mood of quiet, grim resolution which here prevails bodes ill for those who conspired and collaborated to murder world peace."
The one that leaps to mind as historic was Bill Clinton’s speech on January 27, 1998, less than one week after rumors of his affair with Monica Lewinsky first appeared in the news media. Instead of capitulating to pressure that he address the incident, Clinton rose above the scandal to give a stirring address testifying to the success of his economic policies, which now allowed him to propose the first balanced budget in three decades and map out a vision for using America’s resurgent wealth for needed public services. Foreseeing a net surplus for the first time, he asked, "What should we do with this projected surplus? I have a simple, four-word answer: save Social Security first."
The pundits howled that he made no mention of Ken Starr or Monica Lewinsky, but the public loved it. Policy success triumphed over scandal-mongering. Throughout the year ahead, the same pattern would resurface, as a Washington press corps fanned the Republican investigations, while the public sided with the president. Had Starr and Newt Gingrich heeded the lesson of Clinton’s 1998 State of the Union, they may have spared the country a year of distraction, division, and cynicism.
The best State of the Union? Depends how we measure best. Few equal in literary power or majesty a single passage in Lincoln's 1862 address, written amid the Civil War: "Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves...The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation...In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free...We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. " However, taken as a statement of where the country stood and where it must go, a set of promises made, many of which were soon kept, Lyndon Johnson's 1964 State of the Union address stands out. President less than seven weeks, facing a nation still reeling from the assassination of his predecessor, LBJ called upon the Congress to "replace...despair with opportunity." As he declared "an unconditional war on poverty," as well as a determination to redress inequality and injustice, Johnson sketched out the broad principles that would inform some of the greatest legislative achievements of the modern Presidency.
In all my years of listening to State of the Union speeches, I can think of only two lines, let alone whole speeches, that caused me to go, “whoa!” The first was in 1975 when Gerald Ford began the State of the Union with the line, ‘The state of the Union is not good.' It was an honest appraisal of the situation (Watergate had just ended, inflation was raging, the wounds of the Vietnam War were by no means healed, etc.) but honest appraisals are not the common currency of State of the Union speeches. It was a brave moment for Gerald Ford.
The other line was in 1996 when Bill Clinton, having just had his clock cleaned in the 1994 election, when Republicans swept both house of Congress and many state legislatures and governorships, announced that, “The era of big government is over.” No one expected that line, especially from a Democrat, and, for awhile, it actually was true. With Clinton working with a Republican Congress, the federal government grew very little for the rest of that decade, which is why there were budget surpluses for the first time in thirty years. But that’s about it for oratorical fireworks in state of the union speeches. I certainly don’t expect any next Tuesday.
If forced to choose one, I must go with George Washington's first in 1790. It established the template. It was refreshingly short and to the point. It spoke in high-minded terms of national interests. It called for the prudent advance of agriculture, commerce, industry, science, the currency supply, and the military establishment "with a due regard for economy." Above all, Washington appealed to members of Congress as his non-partisan partners:
Gentlemen of the Senate and House of Representatives.... The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed, and I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.
How far our nation has fallen.
"With a few exceptions, State of the Union addresses are typically less memorable for the words themselves—quick, can you think of a line that stayed with you for very long after last year's speech?—than for how presidents use the focused nature of the occasion to suggest that their administration has a new or renewed level of attention to certain issues or emergent policy needs. Presidents most typically use these addresses to enumerate and argue for their priorities, and thus the speech can be used to both signal and frame a new emphasis within an administration.
At other times, especially when the immediate context includes matters of national crisis or unease, the publicity of the occasion gives presidents an opportunity to appear responsive to larger emotional needs for, say, reassurance among the citizenry. An example in this category is Ronald Reagan's fifth State of the Union, originally scheduled for January 28, 1986, which was, sadly, also the day of the Challenger explosion. Reagan ultimately gave a different speech that day, of course, to remember the dead. But a week later, on February 4th, when he gave his official State of the Union address, he began by referencing the choice to postpone the State of the Union address in order to give the nation time to mourn, and then he spoke about his own administration's agenda by suggesting that it, too, was work that would help America "go forward" and "reach for the stars."
In terms of eloquence and importance, virtually all of the State of the Union addresses during Lincoln's administration could be chosen, since the nation is at war with itself. But especially when he is speaking after he's issued the Emancipation Proclamation. That becomes a tremendously important moment and carries a lot of weight. In a way, it's the moment that's eloquent and important, most of the time, as opposed to the words. When you're giving a speech in the middle of a civil war, there are different kinds of issues at stake. You can't start out and say—as nearly every president does—that the state of the union is good, because the state of the union is imperiled. A different kind of drama is at work, one that cinches the relationship between the audience and the speaker.
It's the 50th anniversary of LBJ's State of the Union address when he launched the War on Poverty as well as called on Congress to do more for civil rights and health care for the elderly than the previous hundred Congresses combined. He spoke about poverty in the United States not as an individual but as a collective problem and challenge, and he summoned Americans to tackle it with the determination of waging war and as an effort to realize American ideals. That's a tough one to beat.
No list would be complete without one of Ronald Reagan's. I'd probably choose his 1982 State of the Union for two reasons: he used the address to focus attention on the economy, and set the national agenda very clearly by doing so and he introduced Lenny Skutnik in the gallery—the first time a president used a person to illustrate a point, and thus started a tradition that every president has since taken advantage of—so it shows his ability to innovate rhetorically. Reagan innovated rhetorically in a lot of ways. His style was, in general, more conversational than what we normally associate with presidents. His first inaugural was moved to the side of the Capitol on the mall, and the television coverage had all those visuals of the monuments, identifying him with the giants of US history. He used anecdotes and humor in ways that we hadn't seen since FDR, and when his critics tried to counter with facts, it didn't work.
I would point to Woodrow Wilson's first State of the Union in 1913 as a significant one: He broke with long tradition and turned the State of the Union back into an occasion for an oral speech to Congress. He also made the case for nominating presidential candidates by holding primaries in each state, taking power away from the party conventions—advice that we have taken, with significant but decidedly mixed results. Unfortunately, he (like everyone else) missed the coming storm in Europe. Eight months before the outbreak of the first world war, Wilson said, "There is but one cloud upon our horizon"—and he meant Mexico, where General Victoriano Huerta had recently seized power in a military coup.
Taken as a whole, it's not a particularly memorable speech. But I'd nominate James Monroe's State of the Union message for 1823. In the present day, when federal agencies such as the NSA are increasingly intrusive while over-classification provides an excuse for keeping citizens from knowing exactly what the government is doing, this passage is worth considering:
The people being with us exclusively the sovereign, it is indispensable that full information be laid before them on all important subjects, to enable them to exercise that high power with complete effect. If kept in the dark, they must be incompetent to it. We are all liable to error, and those who are engaged in the management of public affairs are more subject to excitement and to be led astray by their particular interests and passions than the great body of our constituents, who, living at home in the pursuit of their ordinary avocations, are calm but deeply interested spectators of events and of the conduct of those who are parties to them.
An interesting proposition: That the instincts of those who are governed are more to be trusted than the instincts of those who wield power.