Presidential History

Declarations of Impotence

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

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Credit: Whitehouse.gov

Every 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.gov

GEORGE 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.

WTF?

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.

CREDIT: Whitehouse.gov

BILL CLINTON, 1997

Funny, we've never been so prosperous!

Over the last four years, we have brought new economic growth by investing in our people, expanding our exports, cutting our deficits, creating over 11 million new jobs, a four-year record.

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

We here tonight have an historic opportunity. Let this Congress be the Congress that finally balances the budget. In two days, I will propose a detailed plan to balance the budget by 2002.

Retrospective laff lines:

This balanced budget includes the largest antidrug effort ever: to stop drugs at their source, punish those who push them, and teach our young people that drugs are wrong, drugs are illegal, and drugs will kill them.

WTF?

We face no imminent threat, but we do have an enemy—the enemy of our time is inaction.

Big (failed) idea: Education reform.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

RONALD REAGAN, 1985

Funny, we've never been so prosperous!

Tonight we can take pride in 25 straight months of economic growth, the strongest in 34 years; a 3-year inflation average of 3.9 percent, the lowest in 17 years; and 7.3 million new jobs in 2 years, with more of our citizens working than ever before.

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

To move steadily toward a balanced budget, we must also lighten government's claim on our total economy. We will not do this by raising taxes. We must make sure that our economy grows faster than the growth in spending by the Federal Government. In our fiscal year 1986 budget, overall government program spending will be frozen at the current level.

Retrospective laff lines:

Our automobile industry has overhauled assembly lines, increased worker productivity, and is competitive once again.

WTF?

In the zero gravity of space, we could manufacture in 30 days lifesaving medicines it would take 30 years to make on Earth.

Big (failed) successful idea: Tax reform.

RICHARD NIXON, 1973

Funny, we've never been so prosperous!

We enter 1973 economically strong […]

America continues to provide a better and more abundant life for more of its people than any other nation in the world.

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

If we were to continue to expand the Federal Government at the rate of the past several decades, it soon would consume us entirely. The time has come when we must make clear choices–choices between old programs that set worthy goals but failed to reach them and new programs that provide a better way to realize those goals; and choices, too, between competing programs–all of which may be desirable in themselves but only some of which we can afford with the finite resources at our command.

Retrospective laff lines:

At home, we have learned that by working together we can create prosperity without fanning inflation; we can restore order without weakening freedom.

WTF?

In the field of foreign policy, we must remember that a strong America–an America whose word is believed and whose strength is respected–is essential to continued peace and understanding in the world. The peace with honor we have achieved in Vietnam has strengthened this basic American credibility.

Big (failed) idea: No real huge one; "a fresh approach to Government" probably comes closest.

CREDIT: PBS

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, 1965

Funny, we've never been so prosperous!

We are in the midst of the greatest upward surge of economic well-being in the history of any nation.

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

Our balance of payments deficit has declined and the soundness of our dollar is unquestioned. I pledge to keep it that way and I urge business and labor to cooperate to that end.

Retrospective laff lines:

Most important of all, in this period, the United States has reemerged into the fullness of its self-confidence and purpose.

WTF?

In Asia, communism wears a more aggressive face. We see that in Viet-Nam. Why are we there ?

We are there, first, because a friendly nation has asked us for help against the Communist aggression. Ten years ago our President pledged our help. Three Presidents have supported that pledge. We will not break it now.

Second, our own security is tied to the peace of Asia. Twice in one generation we have had to fight against aggression in the Far East. To ignore aggression now would only increase the danger of a much larger war.

Our goal is peace in southeast Asia. That will come only when aggressors leave their neighbors in peace.

What is at stake is the cause of freedom and in that cause America will never be found wanting.

Big (failed) successful idea: This was LBJ's "Great Society" SOTU, and many of his proposals (such as creating a Department of Housing and Urban Development) were indeed enacted. Whether they were "successful" is another story.

CREDIT: Corbis

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, 1957

Funny, we've never been so prosperous!

After more than a century and a half of constant expansion, [the economy] is still rich in a wide variety of natural resources. It is first among nations in its people's mastery of industrial skills. It is productive beyond our own needs of many foodstuffs and industrial products. It is rewarding to all our citizens in opportunity to earn and to advance in self-realization and in self-expression. It is fortunate in its wealth of educational and cultural and religious centers. It is vigorously dynamic in the limitless initiative and willingness to venture that characterize free enterprise. It is productive of a widely shared prosperity.

Our economy is strong, expanding, and fundamentally sound.

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

This [inflation] danger requires a firm resolution that the Federal Government shall utilize only a prudent share of the Nation's resources, that it shall live within its means, carefully measuring against need alternative proposals for expenditures.

Retrospective laff lines:

I believe the time has come to conduct a broad national inquiry into the nature, performance and adequacy of our financial system, both in terms of its direct service to the whole economy and in terms of its function as the mechanism through which monetary and credit policy takes effect.

WTF?

Business in its pricing policies should avoid unnecessary price increases especially at a time like the present when demand in so many areas presses hard on short supplies. A reasonable profit is essential to the new investments that provide more jobs in an expanding economy. But business leaders must, in the national interest, studiously avoid those price rises that are possible only because of vital or unusual needs of the whole nation.

Big (failed) successful idea: Less a legislative proposal or specific doctrine; more of an instinct that the international tumult of 1956 would eventually lead, at long last, to a freer world:

In the world today, the surging and understandable tide of nationalism is marked by widespread revulsion and revolt against tyranny, injustice, inequality and poverty. As individuals, joined in a common hunger for freedom, men and women and even children pit their spirit against guns and tanks. On a larger scale, in an ever more persistent search for the self-respect of authentic sovereignty and the economic base on which national independence must rest, peoples sever old ties; seek new alliances; experiment–sometimes dangerously–in their struggle to satisfy these human aspirations.

Particularly, in the past year, this tide has changed the pattern of attitudes and thinking among millions. The changes already accomplished foreshadow a world transformed by the spirit of freedom. This is no faint and pious hope. The forces now at work in the minds and hearts of men will not be spent through many years. In the main, today's expressions of nationalism are, in spirit, echoes of our forefathers' struggle for independence.

This Republic cannot be aloof to these events heralding a new epoch in the affairs of mankind.

CREDIT: C-SPAN

HARRY S. TRUMAN, 1949

Funny, we've never been so prosperous!

[O]ur private enterprise system has reached new heights of production. Since the boom year of 1929, while our population has increased by only 20 percent, our agricultural production has increased by 45 percent, and our industrial production has increased by 75 percent. We are turning out far more goods and more wealth per worker than we have ever done before.

This progress has confounded the gloomy prophets–at home and abroad who predicted the downfall of American capitalism. The people of the United States, going their own way, confident in their own powers, have achieved the greatest prosperity the world has even seen.

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

At this time, it is essential not only that the Federal budget be balanced, but also that there be a substantial surplus to reduce inflationary pressures, and to permit a sizable reduction in the national debt, which now stands at $252 billion. I recommend, therefore, that the Congress enact new tax legislation to bring in an additional $4 billion of Government revenue. This should come principally from additional corporate taxes. A portion should come from revised estate and gift taxes. Consideration should be given to raising personal income rates in the middle and upper brackets.

Retrospective laff lines:

By producing too few rental units and too large a proportion of high-priced houses, the building industry is rapidly pricing itself out of the market.

WTF?

The business cycle is man-made; and men of good will, working together, can smooth it out.

Big (failed) idea: The Fair Deal.