Declarations of Impotence

7 forgettable State of the Union speeches by second-term presidents

Credit: Whitehouse.govCredit: Whitehouse.govEvery January or February, the American media gathers to pretend that a ceremonial speech delivered by the president to a joint session of Congress is important, even crucial. By March, almost no one will rememember what the president has said.

This cycle of hype and forgetfulness is even more pronounced in second-term presidencies, as lame-duck executives announce major policy initiatives to indifferent voters and hostile congressmen, who tend to strangle such ideas in the crib.

Mining through the State of the Union archive can teach valuable lessons for those willing to learn. It's not just that presidential speeches all tend to sound the same, with their calls for "energy independence" and hosannahs to America's leadership of the free world. But the repeated failure of grand legislative schemes, the persistent references to underperforming areas of American life (usually in provinces, like education, that are dominated by the government), and the relentless rhetorical urgency to act now for the sake of action, all remind us that politics is a messy and generally ineffective way of addressing problems, and that politicians are not a small bit ridiculous.

Here's a tour through the last seven State of the Union addresses in the first year of second-term presidencies, assessed through the lens of their common elements. Not least of which is something that President Barack Obama will have a hard time matching: a full-throated celebration of how the White House has presided over an unprecedented economic boom.

Credit: Whitehouse-archives.govCredit: Whitehouse-archives.govGEORGE W. BUSH, 2005

Funny, we've never been so prosperous!

America's economy is the fastest growing of any major industrialized nation.

So this time we're really gonna balance that budget!

America's prosperity requires restraining the spending appetite of the federal government.

I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline.

I will send you a budget that holds the growth of discretionary spending below inflation, makes tax relief permanent and stays on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009.

Retrospective laff lines:

I've appointed a bipartisan panel to examine the tax code from top to bottom. And when their recommendations are delivered, you and I will work together to give this nation a tax code that is pro-growth, easy to understand and fair to all.


Our men and women in uniform are fighting terrorists in Iraq so we do not have to face them here at home.

Big (failed) idea: Social Security reform.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I don't remember much of anything this president says. And these speeches are pointless most of the time, anyway.

    In earlier threads, I've proposed two speech options for Obama:

    That which is ours is ours again. It will never be taken from us again.

    I am O-Ba-Ma, chief. Also son of chief. Guardian of the holies, speaker of the holy words, leader of warriors. Many have died, but this is the last of the capitalist places. What is ours is ours again.


    Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans:

    America, you can't spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes. You fucked up. . .you trusted us. Hey, make the best of it! Maybe we can help.

    Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.
  • Bill Dalasio||

    Personally, I'd be more impressed to see him deliver something akin to this

    Shit. I know shit's bad right now, with all that starving bullshit, and the dust storms, and we are running out of french fries and burrito coverings. But I got a solution...Now I understand everyone's shit's emotional right now. But I've got a 3 point plan that's going to fix EVERYTHING.
  • Pro Libertate||

    Obama's not that advanced, I fear.

  • ||

    Greatest of holies. Chiefs and sons of chiefs may speak the words, but the Evil One's tongue would surely turn to fire. I will begin. You shall finish.

  • Pro Libertate||

    If I'm ever president, I'll start one State of the Union (broadcast from my house in Tampa) with "E Plebnista."

  • T o n y||

    Point of definition, a president is not a lame duck until his successor has been elected.

  • Pro Libertate||

    This is absolutely correct. Obama is a lame fuck.

  • An0nB0t||

    who tend to strangle such ideas in the crib.

    I would pay good money to witness the remainder of Barry's grand ideas, from now until his dying day, strangled in the crib.

    And, since I do not presently have sufficient funds, the Koch brothers should dedicate a small fraction of their resources to hiring VFW bikers to follow Obama around and rev their bikes to ear-splitting levels each time he opens his mouth in public.

  • Johnimo||

    When will we have a politician to tell us the truth, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat, roll up you sleeves and get to work, for there is truly nothing I can do for you but get government out of the way." Oh, now I remember .... politicians using those phrases don't get elected until there's a dire emergency.

  • Brendan||

    chocolate rations are up
    we're winning the war with Eurasia, the country we've always been at war with

  • Brandon||

    I would be impressed if he would return to the tradition of delivering the SOTU by letter. Throw the USPS a bone.

  • Syd Henderson||

    Johnson and Truman weren't lame ducks. Johnson ran in 1968 and dropped out of the race after the New Hampshire primary. Harry Truman was exempt from the 22nd Amendment and was defeated in the New Hampshire primary by Estes Kefauver.

  • CE||

    And every year, every president has this obligatory phrase: "the state of our union is strong."

  • Not a Libertarian||

    There are serious commentators who propose that the Presdent may be in at least as strong a political position as he was at his first State of the Union address.

    I am not not so certain that the content of the address will be forgotten by March.

    Over/ Under of which of the President's proposals will have been enacted by summer recess?

  • Government Hack||

    Which serious commentators did you have in mind?

  • Renfred43||

    Sienna. I see what you mean... Edna`s c0mment is cool... on tuesday I got Smart ForTwo from earning $9836 this-last/5 weeks and a little over ten-k last-month. it's certainly the nicest-job I have ever had. I actually started 8-months ago and right away started making a nice at least $84, per-hour. I follow this website, http://www.FLY38.COM

  • دردشة عراقنا||

    Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world

  • دردشة بغدادية||

    Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.