It is not unusual for U.S. presidents to reference the pope in their State of the Union addresses. President Obama’s decision to quote Pope Francis in Tuesday’s address follows on Lyndon Johnson’s citation of Pope Paul VI in 1968 and Bill Clinton’s reference to Pope John Paul II in 2000.
People quote people for different reasons, but with Obama’s popularity languishing at its lowest levels ever, and Francis riding a wave of celebrity, it doesn’t stretch the imagination to assume that the President would love to see even a little of Francis’ luster rub off on him.
According to a Politico piece Tuesday, President Obama ended 2014 on a low note, with his worst approval rating in his six years in the White House.
Gallup tracked the President’s approval rating during the course of the past year and found it averaged 42.6%, down from 45.8% in 2013. Prior to this past year, Obama’s worst year for public approval had been his third year, when he averaged 44.4% from January to January.
In Tuesday’s address, the President quoted Pope Francis on the question of diplomacy, and specifically in the context of negotiations with Cuba. Announcing that Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo this year, Obama cited Francis as saying that diplomacy is the work of “small steps.”
The last time a president cited the pope in a State of the Union address was on January 27, 2000, when Bill Clinton capitalized on the popularity of another pontiff—the now-sainted John Paul II. In a world where over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, Clinton said, “We also have got to do our part in the global endeavor to reduce the debts of the poorest countries, so they can invest in education, health care, and economic growth. That’s what the Pope and other religious leaders have urged us to do.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, on the other hand, had just returned from a visit with Pope Paul VI when he gave his State of the Union address on January 17, 1968. The reference there was not to diplomacy or economic development, but how to bring an end to a war in Vietnam that was escalating.
“I have just recently returned from a very fruitful visit and talks with His Holiness the Pope and I share his hope—as he expressed it earlier today—that both sides will extend themselves in an effort to bring an end to the war in Vietnam,” Johnson said. “I have today assured him that we and our allies will do our full part to bring this about.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.