Tonight, President Barack Obama will deliver his third State of the Union Address–and his sixth address to a joint session of Congress. That’s more than either President Bush or President Clinton had addressed in any single term.
Despite his purported skill as an orator, none of Obama’s addresses to Congress has been particularly successful. They are typically remembered more for the rancor they caused than for any positive effects.
Obama is expected to make inequality the focus of his address. That’s an important campaign theme, as well as a refrain of the Occupy Wall Street movement that Obama supported in the fall of 2011.
Yet it is not a significant departure from the tone of previous addresses, in which Obama bullied opponents and Supreme Court justices; fabricated health insurance horror stories; and called upon “millionaires and billionaires” to pay.
For reference purposes as you watch tonight’s State of the Union, here is a concise summary of Obama’s five previous speeches to Congress, and how they were received:
In his first speech as the 44th President, Obama wanted to put his stamp on the presidency and introduce his ambitious policy agenda–one “that begins with jobs,” he said. The highlight of his address was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act–i.e. the stimulus–which he promised would receive “tough, unprecedented oversight” under Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama also announced a government lending program to ease credit, a new housing plan to prevent foreclosures, and assistance to struggling banks. He asked for “long-term investments” in green energy; for a commitment to health care reform; and for new funding for schools, along with education reforms. And he promised to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term, partly by letting “tax breaks” for the wealthy expire.
In addition, Obama touched on national security, reiterating his promise to close the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay, hinting that he would press for civilian trials for terrorists, and promising to “defeat al Qaeda and combat extremism.” On foreign policy, Obama declared “a new era of engagement” through negotiations with hostile powers, and announced the appointment of a new envoy to help end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The reaction to Obama’s speech was somewhat negative: he apparently intended to govern from the left, not from the center (as some had hoped). Stock prices fell sharply the next morning, recovering by the afternoon but ending firmly in the red. In retrospect, though Obama kept his promises on assisting banks and fighting al Qaeda, he broke many other pledges, and saw many of his policies–especially the stimulus–fail badly.
Obama’s speech is remembered more for Republican congressman Joe Wilson’s (accurate, though rude) outburst–“You lie!”–than for anything Obama himself said. Yet the speech was the climax of a heated political battle over health care reform that lasted well into the next year, divided the nation bitterly, and eventually cost Democrats control of the House in November 2010.
Obama began by taking credit for economic progress (“we have pulled this economy back from the brink”) before launching into his chosen topic. In outlining the problem, Obama told two stories about ordinary Americans who had suffered through losing their insurance; both of these later turned out to be false. He declared that while other presidents had tried to deal with health care reform, he was “determined to be the last.”
Obama presented his plan–which did not exist in legislative form–as the middle ground between Democrats’ preference for “single-payer” and Republicans’ proposal to “leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.” He said his plan would be deficit-neutral; provide “more security and more stability” while insuring more people; slow the growth of health costs, and allow people to keep “the coverage or the doctor you have.”
Next, Obama turned to the “bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost.” These included so-called “death panels,” insuring illegal immigrants, and federal funding for abortion; the latter two turned out to be true, and the first persists in rationing proposals. Obama went on to criticize insurance companies, to defend his proposed Medicare cuts, and to offer a promise to consider tort reform (still unfulfilled).
Obama again began with the now-familiar refrain that he had entered office in tumultuous times, but had brought America back from the brink–“one year later, the worst of the storm has passed.” Yet Obama did not look confident–shaken, perhaps, by 10% unemployment and by the election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate from Massachusetts, a striking rebuke to Obama.
Citing “experts from across the political spectrum,” Obama claimed government had needed to act “immediately and aggressively” in 2009. Likewise, citing “economists on the left and right,” he claimed the stimulus had “helped save jobs and avert disaster.” He also drew attention to tax cuts that had been part of the stimulus, claiming that he had done what was politically difficult in order to achieve what was economically necessary.
Obama continued by declaring that for businesses to create jobs, government first had to “create the conditions necessary.” To that end, he proposed using $30 billion of the TARP bailout money to help “community banks.” He also touted infrastructure spending and investments in clean energy. Describing the previous economic recovery as a “lost decade,” he urged Congress to reshape the new recovery by passing financial reform.
After outlining several other government-driven economic proposals, Obama turned to health care, reiterating that his reforms would be deficit-neutral and allow Americans “to keep their doctor and their plan.” Striking a bipartisan tone, Obama asked for proposals for a “better approach” (though Republican plans were never, in fact, considered). He also announced his bipartisan debt commission (whose advice he ultimately rejected).
In a striking breach of decorum, Obama then turned to the Supreme Court justices who were sitting impassively in the chamber and excoriated them for their ruling in Citizens United–prompting Justice Samuel Alito to shake his head and mouth the words: “Not true.” Democrats leapt to their feet. Obama then decried partisanship in Washington, singling out Senate Republicans for the filibuster power they had only recently regained.
On foreign policy, Obama touted his pursuit of terrorists, and promised to bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He also highlighted his work on nuclear disarmament, and highlighted the cause of human rights in Iran–a cause Obama had conspicuously failed to support when protests erupted there in 2009. In closing, he promised to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and concluded: “I never suggested that change would be easy.”
This was Obama’s first address to the new, divided Congress after his party suffered an historic defeat in the November 2010 elections. Missing a few Supreme Court justices, and facing a chamber dominated by Republicans, Obama’s speech failed to demonstrate that he had received the urgent message Americans had sent his administration at the polls just a few weeks before.
Obama began with the Tucson shootings–which Democrats had already mobilized for partisan purposes–as a symbol of the need for unity. Once again, he claimed credit for signs of economic progress, including rising stock prices and new private sector jobs. In order to succeed further, Obama said, the government would have to invest in “winning the future” (a slogan stolen, ironically, from his possible future opponent Newt Gingrich).
The slogan–which Sarah Palin would mock with the acronym “WTF”–included plans to spend, once again, on clean energy; to increase spending on education; to solve illegal immigration “once and for all”; and to invest in high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects. Aside from vague nods on tax reform and entitlements, and a promised “review of government regulations,” the address simply reiterated Obama’s past priorities.
Obama acknowledged his health care law could be “improved,” but–setting up a straw man–vowed never to “go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition.” On the issue of the national debt, he proposed freezing domestic spending for five years–at the high levels he had already set. Critically, Obama failed to endorse the proposals of his debt commission.
Once again, Obama spoke about his administration’s success in fighting al Qaeda, and his goal of ending the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also, however, added that he had “increased cooperation” with American allies on missile defense–a gross distortion, given that he had backed out of commitments on missile defense with Poland and the Czech Republic. Overall, the speech fell flat, setting the stage for a difficult political year.
This address was President Obama’s most partisan, and most futile: the “jobs bill” it was meant to promote was delayed by the president’s own party in the Senate, and ultimately never passed. For the first time, Obama did not attempt to claim credit for economic recovery, but highlighted “economic crisis”–and attacked Congress for causing “a political crisis that’s made things worse.”
The American Jobs Act was essentially a reprise of the stimulus of 2009, which Obama tacitly acknowledged had failed. Packed with proposals that the president knew would not pass the Republican-controlled House–such as more spending on profligate state governments, and new taxes on people Obama called “millionaires and billionaires”–the address set Congress as the rhetorical punching bag of Obama’s re-election campaign.
As he had done two years before in pressing Congress to pass health care reform, the president described his bill as the moderate alternative. He scolded Democrats “who don’t think we should make any changes at all to Medicare and Medicaid”; he attacked Republicans “who don’t believe we should raise taxes on those who are most fortunate and can best afford it.” This time, neither party appeared to be impressed by the tactic.
Once again, Obama argued for the role of government in American life, asserting that its importance was based on “a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation….No single individual built America on their own.” Republican pundits were critical of the speech, but some greeted it with relief: finally, there was no more pretense. Obama had become his true, big-government self.