SOTU and the Cynical Call for Bipartisanship: Four Decades of B.S.
President Obama's call for putting aside partisanship and governing as "Americans" is one of the oldest and most dishonest cliches in politics.
Every president's State of the Union Address (SOTU) includes unconvincing appeals to bipartisanship and everyone working together with the federal government to make America a shining bucket of awesomeness.
Barack Obama's seventh SOTU on Tuesday was no exception. Here are a few selected samples of recent presidents' hopes for kumbaya moments in the midst of a partisan, political setting.
Obama 2015: "Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn't one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other's basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than 'gotcha' moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people's daily lives."
Obama 2014: "And in the coming months, let's see where else we can make progress together. Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want: for all of us in this Chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations."
Obama 2013: "The American people don't expect government to solve every problem. They don't expect those of us in this Chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the Nation's interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can. For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together and that the responsibility of improving this Union remains the task of us all.
Obama 2012: "Finally, none of this can happen unless we also lower the temperature in this town. We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction, that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around commonsense ideas."
George W. Bush 2008: "In this election year, let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them. Let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time. From expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we've made good progress. Yet we have unfinished business before us, and the American people expect us to get it done."
Bush 2007: "Like many before us, we can work through our differences, and we can achieve big things for the American people. Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we're willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done. Our job is to make life better for our fellow Americans and to help them build a future of hope and opportunity, and this is the business before us tonight."
Bush 2006: "In a system of two parties, two chambers, and two elected branches, there will always be differences and debate. But even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone, and our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger. To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of good will and respect for one another, and I will do my part. Tonight the state of our Union is strong, and together we will make it stronger."
Bush 2005: "Now, as we see a little gray in the mirror and we watch our children moving into adulthood, we ask the question: What will be the state of their Union? Members of Congress, the choices we make together will answer that question. Over the next several months, on issue after issue, let us do what Americans have always done and build a better world for our children and our grandchildren."
Bill Clinton 1999: "A hundred years from tonight, another American President will stand in this place and report on the state of the Union. He—or she—will look back on a 21st century shaped in so many ways by the decisions we make here and now. So let it be said of us then that we were thinking not only of our time but of their time, that we reached as high as our ideals, that we put aside our divisions and found a new hour of healing and hopefulness, that we joined together to serve and strengthen the land we love."
George H.W. Bush 1992: "I mean to speak tonight of big things, of big changes and the promises they hold, and of some big problems and how, together, we can solve them and move our country forward as the undisputed leader of the age."
Ronald Reagan 1988: "In the spirit of Jefferson, let us affirm that in this Chamber tonight there are no Republicans, no Democrats—just Americans. Yes, we will have our differences, but let us always remember what unites us far outweighs whatever divides us. Those who sent us here to serve them-the millions of Americans watching and listening tonight—expect this of us. Let's prove to them and to ourselves that democracy works even in an election year."
This is a small sampling. Every year, no matter who is in power, presidents make the case for bipartisanship during the State of the Union address.
On a superficial level, the two parties never really come together and govern simply as "Americans." Democrats and Republicans go at it with all they've got and, at least since the Nixon years, there are cries that we have entered a terrifying, no-holds-barred era of nastiness and partisanship the likes of which has never been seen.
On a deeper level, though, both parties do pull in the same direction, at least when it comes to expanding the size, scope, and spending of government. This sort of bipartisanship is rarely recognized, especially by the media and partisans who are distracted by the narcissism of petty differences. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or that our children's children won't be paying the bill.