Ever since Woodrow Wilson invented the modern State of the Union Address by coming before a joint session of Congress in 1913, presidents have been struggling vainly to rise to the rhetorical occasion. The clichés of this annual exercise somehow inspire even the most eloquent presidents to deal in buzz words and hackneyed phrases.
There have been memorable State of the Union moments such as Bill Clinton in 1996 hyperbolically declaring that "the era of big government is over" and George W. Bush in 2002 ominously including Iraq in his "axis of evil." But no one has delivered a great speech that holds together as a coherent whole rather than as a laundry list punctuated by partisan applause.
A single White House speechwriter may have full rein in composing an inaugural address that strives for eloquence, or in crafting a presidential sermonette marking a national tragedy such as the Challenger disaster or the Tucson shootings. But a State of the Union inevitably is a bureaucratic document thematically marred by speechwriting by committee. Cabinet agencies pleading for a few sentences (marking, say, the recent passage of the food safety legislation) combined with the political necessity of pleasing constituency groups (prediction: Barack Obama will include a shout-out for immigration reform) help produce theme-less puddings of presidential prose.
As a former presidential speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, I am certain what the Obama wordsmiths first did to prepare for this year's address. They immediately went back and studied all the prior presidential State of the Unions that came on the heels of stunning rebukes at the polls.
Some of the examples were chilling. Jerry Ford, whose party lost 48 House seats in the post-Watergate election, gave in 1975 what was probably the bleakest -- and most honest -- assessment in modern history: "I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more." The next year, though, when Ford was running for reelection he announced, "Just a year ago I reported that the state of the Union was not good. Tonight, I report that the state of our Union is better -- in many ways a lot better."
Since the days of Harry Truman
(the Democrats dropped 54 House seats in 1946), presidents have been trying to acknowledging these embarrassing political setbacks with a flash of humor. In 1947, Truman began his State of the Union with a rueful acknowledgment of his shellacking as he referred to the changed partisan makeup and physical layout of Congress: "It looks like a good many of you have moved over to the left since I was here last."
In a remark that Obama may be tempted to echo, Bill Clinton
, after the electoral wipeout that made Newt Gingrich House speaker, declared in 1995, "If we agree on nothing else tonight, we must agree that the American people certainly voted for change in 1992 and in 1994. And as I look out at you, I know how some of you must have felt in 1992."
Obama is certain to invoke the spirit of bipartisanship. That now overused word for political accommodation was first brandished by Harry Truman in his 1950 State of the Union when he expressed his appreciation for "the bipartisan cooperation in foreign affairs which has been enjoyed by this administration." In fact, until Richard Nixon, bipartisanship only popped up in these annual speeches to Congress as a variant on the old foreign-policy saw that politics stops at the water's edge. It was Nixon in 1974, clinging to the presidency by a thread, who first used bipartisan in its modern context when he declared, "The Congress has in the past given strong bipartisan support to the Arts Endowment. That same support will be needed in the future." Yes 37 years ago, support for the arts was the embodiment of bipartisanship.
(This is the moment to express my gratitude for the searchable data base of State of the Union addresses -- and all other presidential words -- created by the American Presidency Project
at the University of California, Santa Barbara.)
The first round of planned White House leaks to manage expectations for the State of the Union underscores that Obama plans to make "common ground" with Republicans a major theme of the address. The phrase was first used in a State of the Union by Ford in 1977 to gush about the rapprochement with China: "We are finding more and more common ground between our two countries on basic questions of international affairs." Nothing changes in the world of super-powers. Hu Jintao used the same bromide (as translated) last week during his arrival remarks
at the White House: "We should deepen mutual understanding through communication, increase mutual trust through dialogue, and expand common ground through exchanges."
With the appointment of such 1990s figures as Bill Daley and Gene Sperling to top White House jobs, Obama is fast finding his inner Clinton. Small wonder that Clinton highlighted the phrase "common ground" in three separate State of the Union addresses (in 1995, 1996 and 1998). But before Obama embarks on this rhetorical nostalgia tour, he should consider the context in which Clinton used the phrase in his pre-election 1996 speech -- while rhetorically abandoning the traditional Democratic liberal idea of government.
After bidding a fond farewell to the era of big government in his State of the Union, Clinton immediately said, "But we can't go back to the era of fending for yourself. We have to go forward to the era of working together as a community, as a team, as one America, with all of us reaching across these lines that divide us -- the division, the discrimination, the rancor -- we have to reach across it to find common ground."
The truth is that almost every rhetorical conceit in a State of the Union address is recycled. John Kennedy, a president who endorsed a strict separation between church and state, ended his 1962 speech by saying, "And in this high endeavor, may God watch over the United States of America." God's next cameo came in 1977 when Jerry Ford (who might have heard a sneeze in the audience) ended his address to Congress by saying, "Good night. And God bless you." Jimmy Carter concluded all his State of the Unions with a simple "thank you." In 1982 (the same year that he began a State of the Union tradition by introducing heroes from the balcony), Ronald Reagan combined the Ford and Carter endings by saying, "God bless you and thank you." By 1984, Reagan slipped into full Kate-Smith-singing-Irving-Berlin mode when he declared, "God bless you and God bless America."
No president has departed from this seventh-inning-stretch formula since then with the exception of Bill Clinton in 1999. Facing an impeachment trial in the Senate, Clinton went with this wordy coda: "Let us lift our eyes as one nation, and from the mountaintop of this American Century, look ahead to the next one, asking God's blessing on our endeavors and on our beloved country. Thank you, and good evening."
Not everything in a State of the Union will be recycled. Here is one Obama line from last year's speech guaranteed not to be repeated: "To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills."
In defense of Obama's speechwriters, it is difficult to compose enduring prose when every three sentences are supposed to contain at least one applause line and the TV cameras distract viewers at home by zooming in for close-ups of the partisan reactions. Still, everyone who loves political rhetoric -- regardless of party or ideology -- hopes that somehow on Tuesday night Obama will find a way to transcend (or, at least, reinvent) the clichés that invariably mar the only constitutionally mandated speech on a president's calendar.
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