The Eternal State of the Union

Why does every SOTU sound eerily familiar? Because presidents have been saying the same things for a half-century.


What will President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address look like tonight? We can be pretty sure Obama will talk about improving the economy, creating jobs for the 21st century, achieving energy independence, improving our schools, confronting America's enemies, championing the global cause of freedom, tackling long-term entitlements, and building bipartisan coalitions to rise above political bickering and do the people's work, at this hinge point in history.

That's because every State of the Union has contained all or most of these nostrums stretching back a half-century. In fact, starting with John F. Kennedy's address to a joint session of Congress in 1961, you could take one sentence from each SOTU since, in chronological order, and cobble together a speech that will likely resemble much of what you'll hear tonight.

So that's precisely what I've done. Without further ado.


I speak today in an hour of national peril and national opportunity. This week we begin anew our joint and separate efforts to build the American future. For you and I are privileged to serve the great Republic in what could be the most decisive decade in its long history. We have a unique opportunity and obligation—to prove the success of our system; to disprove those cynics and critics at home and abroad who question our purpose and our competence.

We do not intend to live in the midst of abundance, isolated from neighbors and nature, confined by blighted cities and bleak suburbs, stunted by a poverty of learning and an emptiness of leisure. I have come here to recommend that you, the representatives of the richest Nation on earth, you, the elected servants of a people who live in abundance unmatched on this globe, you bring the most urgent decencies of life to all of your fellow Americans.

We should strengthen the Head Start program, begin it for children 3 years old, and maintain its educational momentum by following through in the early years. And to give the consumer a stronger voice, I plan to appoint a consumer counsel in the Justice Department—a lawyer for the American consumer—to work directly under the Attorney General, to serve the President's Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs, and to serve the consumers of this land.

Although the struggle for progressive change is continuous, there are times when a watershed is reached—when there is—if not really a break with the past—at least the fulfillment of many of its oldest hopes, and a stepping forth into a new environment, to seek new goals. Clean air, clean water, open spaces—these should once again be the birthright of every American. With the stimulus and the discipline of a full employment budget, with the commitment of the independent Federal Reserve System to provide fully for the monetary needs of a growing economy, and with a much greater effort on the part of labor and management to make their wage and price decisions in the light of the national interest and their own self-interest—then for the worker, the farmer, the consumer, for Americans everywhere we shall gain the goal of a new prosperity: more jobs, more income, more profits, without inflation and without war.

There is ample precedent, in this election year, for me to present you with a huge list of new proposals, knowing full well that there would not be any possibility of your passing them if you worked night and day. But we must never forget that nothing worthwhile can be achieved without the will to succeed and the strength to sacrifice.

I pledge to you tonight that the full powers of this government will be used to keep America's economy producing and to protect the jobs of America's workers. Let us mobilize the most powerful and most creative industrial nation that ever existed on this Earth to put all our people to work. We must introduce a new balance to our economy—a balance that favors not only sound, active government but also a much more vigorous, healthy economy that can create new jobs and hold down prices. We must revise our tax system both to ease the burden of heavy taxation and to encourage the investment necessary for the creation of productive jobs for all Americans who want to work.

We've come through a long period of turmoil and doubt, but we've once again found our moral course, and with a new spirit, we are striving to express our best instincts to the rest of the world. Americans as a united people, working with our allies and friends, have never been afraid to face problems and to solve problems, either here or abroad. As we meet tonight, it has never been more clear that the state of our Union depends on the state of the world. We must have both the military power and the political will to deter our adversaries and to support our friends and allies. By restoring America's military credibility, by pursuing peace at the negotiating table wherever both sides are willing to sit down in good faith, and by regaining the respect of America's allies and adversaries alike, we have strengthened our country's position as a force for peace and progress in the world.

America's leadership in the world came to us because of our own strength and because of the values which guide us as a society: free elections, a free press, freedom of religious choice, free trade unions, and above all, freedom for the individual and rejection of the arbitrary power of the state. We are just now restoring, through the essential modernization of our conventional and strategic forces, our capability to meet our present and future security needs. And tonight, we declare anew to our fellow citizens of the world: Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a chosen few; it is the universal right of all God's children.

Closing our eyes will not make reality disappear. And let there be no mistake about American policy: We will not sit idly by if our interests or our friends in the Middle East are threatened, nor will we yield to terrorist blackmail. As the global democratic revolution has put totalitarianism on the defensive, we have left behind the days of retreat.

And so, tonight we must take a strong America and make it even better. Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores, and the millions still struggling to be free. Together, these last 2 years, we've put dollars for child care directly in the hands of parents instead of bureaucracies; unshackled the potential of Americans with disabilities; applied the creativity of the marketplace in the service of the environment, for clean air; and made home ownership possible for more Americans. Further, for the untold number of hard-working, responsible American workers and business men and women who've been forced to go without needed bank loans, the banking credit crunch must end.

It has been too long, at least three decades, since a President has come and challenged Americans to join him on a great national journey, not merely to consume the bounty of today but to invest for a much greater one tomorrow. As we protect our environment, we must invest in the environmental technologies of the future which will create jobs. I want us to cut more spending, but I hope we won't cut government programs that help to prepare us for the new economy, promote responsibility, and are organized from the grassroots up, not by federal bureaucracy.

I challenge every community, every school, and every state to adopt national standards of excellence, to measure whether schools are meeting those standards, to cut bureaucratic red-tape so that schools and teachers have more flexibility for grassroots reform, and to hold them accountable for results. So tonight I issue a call to action: action by this Congress, action by our states, by our people, to prepare America for the 21st century; action to keep our economy and our democracy strong and working for all our people; action to strengthen education and harness the forces of technology and science; action to build stronger families and stronger communities and a safer environment; action to keep America the world's strongest force for peace, freedom, and prosperity; and above all, action to build a more perfect Union here at home. It is a time to build, to build the America within reach, an America where everybody has a chance to get ahead with hard work; where every citizen can live in a safe community; where families are strong, schools are good, and all our young people can go on to college; an America where scientists find cures for diseases from diabetes to Alzheimer's to AIDS; an America where every child can stretch a hand across a keyboard and reach every book ever written, every painting ever painted, every symphony ever composed; where government provides opportunity and citizens honor the responsibility to give something back to their communities; an America which leads the world to new heights of peace and prosperity.

By 2032, the Trust Fund will be exhausted and Social Security will be unable to pay the full benefits older Americans have been promised. Tonight I ask you to work with me to make a bipartisan downpayment on Social Security reform by crediting the interest savings from debt reduction to the Social Security Trust Fund so that it will be strong and sound for the next 50 years.

Year after year in Washington, budget debates seem to come down to an old, tired argument: on one side, those who want more Government, regardless of the cost; on the other, those who want less Government, regardless of the need. My budget supports three great goals for America: We will win this war; we will protect our homeland; and we will revive our economy. In a whirlwind of change and hope and peril, our faith is sure; our resolve is firm; and our Union is strong.

We can press on with economic growth and reforms in education and Medicare, or we can turn back to old policies and old divisions. Now, as we see a little gray in the mirror—or a lot of gray— [laughter]—and we watch our children moving into adulthood, we ask the question: What will be the state of their Union? Will we choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy, or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity? With enough good sense and good will, you and I can fix Medicare and Medicaid and save Social Security.

The strength—the secret of our strength, the miracle of America is that our greatness lies not in our Government, but in the spirit and determination of our people. While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before. It's because of this spirit, this great decency and great strength, that I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight.

God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine.