Biden May Dream of 6 More Years, but His Three Closest Comps Never Got There
What we can learn from the State of the Union addresses by Jimmy Carter in 1979, Richard Nixon in 1971, and JFK in 1963
They squeaked into the White House after heavily contested elections. They got through their first midterms without shedding too much congressional blood, despite public anxieties over inflation, big-city crime, and conflict with Moscow. Now, as they prepared to deliver their first post-midterm State of the Union (SOTU) addresses, each had dreams of keeping the world's most powerful job for another six years.
None of those dreams would come true.
John F. Kennedy in 1963, Richard Nixon in 1971, and Jimmy Carter in 1979 are the best comps for where President Joe Biden is at in 2023, as he gears up for another speech in front of a joint session of Congress, reportedly with an eye toward competing for a second term. Their presidencies ended, respectively, in assassination, resignation, and electoral defeat.
We cannot say where Biden's political fates lie, though the preliminary polling numbers even among Democrats are brutal. But we can predict based on his predecessors' SOTUs, and on the president's all-too-lengthy oratorical track record, that tonight will be filled with premature economic bragging, trial-balloon moonshots destined for the dustbin, and lofty rhetoric almost comically untethered to our grubby political realities.
Viewing SOTU speechcraft through a historical lens is a good way to pre-puncture the pomposity, remind ourselves about the impotence of power, and surface some historical echoes relevant to contemporary problems. It's a way to mark the passage of time and maybe even imagine a few libertarian roads not taken. No matter what you hear tonight, February 2023 is not the turning point in the American story, though it may offer some hint as to how Biden's half-century political career will finally come to a close.
Here's a curated look at the State of the Union addresses by Biden's most analogous predecessors:
SOTU: John F. Kennedy, January 14, 1963
Midterm results for the president's political party: -4 in the House, +4 in the Senate. (Democrats had a currently unfathomable 36-seat advantage in the Senate, +82 in the House.
Main theme of the speech: Tax cuts! "One step, above all, is essential—the enactment this year of a substantial reduction and revision in Federal income taxes….We cannot afford to be timid or slow. For this is the most urgent task confronting the Congress in 1963."
Turning point: "I congratulate you all—not merely on your electoral victory but on your selected role in history. For you and I are privileged to serve the great Republic in what could be the most decisive decade in its long history. The choices we make, for good or ill, may well shape the state of the union for generations yet to come."
Inflation at the time: Just 1.2 percent. And yet: "[There are] growing pressures for such restrictive measures as the 35-hour week, which alone could increase hourly labor costs by as much as 14 percent, start a new wage-price spiral of inflation, and undercut our efforts to compete with other nations."
You are better off than you were two years ago: "At home, the recession is behind us. Well over a million more men and women are working today than were working two years ago. The average factory work week is once again more than 40 hours; our industries are turning out more goods than ever before; and more than half of the manufacturing capacity that lay silent and wasted 100 weeks ago is humming with activity."
Premature victory lap: "A settlement, though still precarious, has been reached in Laos. The spearpoint of aggression has been blunted in Vietnam. The end of agony may be in sight in the Congo."
Russkies: "I would counsel caution. I foresee no spectacular reversal in Communist methods or goals. But if all these trends and developments can persuade the Soviet Union to walk the path of peace, then let her know that all free nations will journey with her. But until that choice is made, and until the world can develop a reliable system of international security, the free peoples have no choice but to keep their arms nearby."
Closet libertarian: "It is clear that the forces of diversity are at work inside the Communist camp, despite all the iron disciplines of regimentation and all the iron dogmatisms of ideology. Marx is proven wrong once again: for it is the closed Communist societies, not the free and open societies which carry within themselves the seeds of internal disintegration….As the older colonialism recedes, and the neocolonialism of the Communist powers stands out more starkly than ever, they realize more clearly that the issue in the world struggle is not communism versus capitalism, but coercion versus free choice."
SOTU: Richard Nixon, January 22, 1971
Midterm results for the president's political party: -12 in the House,+1 in the Senate (Dems still dominated; +10 in the Senate, +75 in the House).
Main theme of the speech: The devolution of federal power to state and local governments.
Turning point: "This 92nd Congress has a chance to be recorded as the greatest Congress in America's history….As we consider these reforms we will be acting, not for the next two years or for the next 10 years, but for the next 100 years."
Inflation at the time: 5.3 percent. "The tide of inflation has turned. The rise in the cost of living, which had been gathering dangerous momentum in the late '60s, was reduced last year. Inflation will be further reduced this year." Inflation indeed kept going down, all the way to 2.7 percent in June 1972…then back to 5.5 percent in May 1973, and 10.9 percent by the time Nixon resigned from office.
You are better off than you were two years ago: "The level of unemployment in this transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy is lower than in any peacetime year of the '60s."
Premature victory lap: "In these troubled years just past, America has been going through a long nightmare of war and division, of crime and inflation. Even more deeply, we have gone through a long, dark night of the American spirit. But now that night is ending. Now we must let our spirits soar again. Now we are ready for the lift of a driving dream."
Ghost of Biden's past: "I will also ask for an appropriation of an extra $100 million to launch an intensive campaign to find a cure for cancer, and I will ask later for whatever additional funds can effectively be used. The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dreaded disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal."
Closet libertarian: "Let's face it. Most Americans today are simply fed up with government at all levels. They will not—and they should not—continue to tolerate the gap between promise and performance in government….The further away government is from people, the stronger government becomes and the weaker people become. And a nation with a strong government and a weak people is an empty shell….One hundred years ago, Abraham Lincoln stood on a battlefield and spoke of a 'government of the people, by the people, for the people.' Too often since then, we have become a nation of the government, by the government, for the government."
SOTU: Jimmy Carter, January 23, 1979
Midterm results for the president's political party: -15 in the House, -3 in the Senate (Dems were +17 in the Senate, +120 in the House).
Main theme of the speech: A "new foundation."
Turning point: "The new foundation I've discussed tonight can help us build a nation and a world where every child is nurtured and can look to the future with hope, where the resources now wasted on war can be turned towards meeting human needs, where all people have enough to eat, a decent home, and protection against disease."
Inflation: 9.3 percent. "In our economy, it is a myth that we must choose endlessly between inflation and recession. Together, we build the foundation for a strong economy, with lower inflation, without contriving either a recession with its high unemployment or unworkable, mandatory government controls." Twelve months later, the economy entered into a recession, and inflation stood at 13.9 percent.
You are better off than you were two years ago: "Our economy offers greater prosperity for more of our people than ever before. Real per-capita income and real business profits have risen substantially in the last two years. Farm exports are setting an all-time record each year, and farm income last year, net farm income, was up more than 25 percent….Together, we've already begun to build the foundation for confidence in our economic system. During the last two years, in bringing our economy out of the deepest recession since the 1930s, we've created 7,100,000 new jobs. The unemployment rate has gone down 25 percent."
Premature victory lap: "We have no desire to be the world's policeman. But America does want to be the world's peacemaker. We are building the foundation for truly global cooperation, not only with Western and industrialized nations but with the developing countries as well."
Russkies: "The new foundation of international cooperation that we seek excludes no nation. Cooperation with the Soviet Union serves the cause of peace, for in this nuclear age, world peace must include peace between the superpowers—and it must mean the control of nuclear arms."
Ghost of Biden's past: "This year, we will take our first steps to develop a national health plan."
Closet libertarian: "We must begin to scrutinize the overall effect of regulation in our economy. Through deregulation of the airline industry we've increased profits, cut prices for all Americans, and begun—for one of the few times in the history of our nation—to actually dismantle a major federal bureaucracy. This year, we must begin the effort to reform our regulatory processes for the railroad, bus, and the trucking industries….America has the greatest economic system in the world. Let's reduce government interference and give it a chance to work….We need to enact a sunshine [sunset] law that when government programs have outlived their value, they will automatically be terminated."