Joe Biden will give his first State of the Union address tonight before a joint session of Congress.
With COVID protocols still in effect, the socially-distanced event is sure to be a snapshot of our times. Besides just showcasing the new President’s top priorities, these speeches also reveal a great deal about our national mindset.
In anticipation of Biden’s big night, I read through the first SOTU for the last seven Administrations. These speeches not only provided notable insight into each Chief Executive, but also an expansive look at the political trends of these last few decades. Let’s run-through each one.
Jimmy Carter focused his first address to Congress on a single subject: energy. On the surface, this was a bit of a surprise since energy wasn’t a major issue in the 1976 campaign. Nevertheless, Carter became convinced that the struggle was “the moral equivalent of war”.
Pres. Carter actually made that audacious statement two days before in an Oval Office address. The idea was to do a full court media blitz with two national addresses and a press conference all within a week.
Perhaps Carter’s team thought such a push was necessary to get his ‘tough love’ message across. Among his proposals were a gas tax and regular reductions in total energy consumption. The 39th President wasn’t expecting a warm reception from Congress and admitted as much up top. This would become a trend both for Carter and his signature program.
“This cannot be an inspirational speech tonight,” he cautioned. “I don’t expect much applause. It’s a sober and a difficult presentation.”
Ronald Reagan dedicated his first State of the Union to economic recovery, specifically, efforts to curb sky-high inflation rates. His proposal was a dual remedy of steep spending cuts alongside tax cuts.
While Reagan’s speech wasn’t as dour as Carter’s, the optimistic tone he became known for was seemingly pared down a bit for this initial effort.
“I don’t want it to be simply the plan of my administration. I’m here tonight to ask you to join me in making it our plan. Together we can embark on this road,” Reagan told Congress. “We’re in control here. There’s nothing wrong with America that together we can’t fix.”
Altogether, this address didn’t leave much of a legacy. His April return, following an assassination attempt, left a far more lasting impression.
In many ways, Biden has more in common with Bush than anyone else on this list. They’re the only ones who served as Vice President, getting to view the SOTU from a rare vantage point. They’re also probably the only ones who actually enjoyed their time in Congress, and considered their audience a crowd full of friends. Even Bush’s title for his address, “Building A Better America”, sounds similar to Biden’s 2020 campaign slogan “Build Back Better”.
Since Bush got the direct promotion from VP to the top job, he gave the only address that was not a thinly veiled repudiation of his predecessor.
“I don’t propose to reverse direction,” Bush established early on. “We’re headed the right way, but we cannot rest.”
While Bush devoted most of the speech to domestic affairs, he was the first President on this list to delve into foreign policy. His remarks provide a window into the rare presidency that prioritized foreign affairs.
“Securing a more peaceful world is perhaps the most important priority I’d like to address tonight,” he proclaimed. “You know, we meet at a time of extraordinary hope. Never before in this century have our values of freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity been such a powerful and intellectual force around the globe.”
Bill Clinton’s first State of the Union sought to evoke the spirit of John F. Kennedy, as he asserted that it had been “at least three decades since a President has come and challenged Americans to join him on a great national journey.”
“My fellow Americans, the test of this plan cannot be ‘what is in it for me.’ It has got to be ‘what is in it for us’,” Clinton continued, echoing JFK’s inaugural.
The main focus of the address was economic recovery, as Clinton declared that “our task tonight as Americans is to make our economy thrive again.” A major component of his plan was spending cuts, making Clinton the third straight President to advocate for them in his first SOTU. In fact, Clinton even made reference to an analogy Reagan had given about the deficit back in his 1981 talk.
Clinton also made an impassioned pitch for healthcare reform, which would become his main focus in another joint address to Congress just seven months later.
George W. Bush’s maiden speech had a number of similarities to his father’s. They both called for reducing the national debt, cutting taxes and a renewed emphasis on education. They were also the only two on this list to give relatively positive speeches.
While Bush never mentioned Clinton, he painted a country that was at least half-way to peace and prosperity.
“An artist using statistics as a brush could paint two very different pictures of our country,” Bush explained. “One would have warning signs: increasing layoffs, rising energy prices, too many failing schools, persistent poverty, the stubborn vestiges of racism. Another picture would be full of blessings: a balanced budget, big surpluses, a military that is second to none, a country at peace with its neighbors, technology that is revolutionizing the world, and our greatest strength, concerned citizens who care for our country and care for each other.”
While Bush’s SOTU was mostly focused on domestic matters, he did briefly mention foreign affairs. Given how the 9/11 attacks and Iraq War overtook his Presidency, these remarks are ominous in retrospect.
“Our Nation also needs a clear strategy to confront the threats of the 21st century, threats that are more widespread and less certain,” he warned. “They range from terrorists who threaten with bombs to tyrants and rogue nations intent on developing weapons of mass destruction.”
Recovery from the Great Recession was the principal focus of Barack Obama’s first State of the Union. The new President proposed a budget that included three major reform efforts concerning energy, healthcare and education.
“Now is the time to act boldly and wisely — to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity,” asserted President Obama. “Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy.”
The 44th President would soon decide to begin with healthcare instead, eventually winning a long battle and signing the Affordable Care Act into the law. When it came to energy and education, though, he had to settle for executive actions.
Despite all his new spending plans, Obama’s address still committed considerable time to worries about the deficit and the national debt. Additionally, the text included a mention of Joe Biden, who was put in charge of overseeing the stimulus plan. Obama felt Biden was uniquely equipped for this role “because nobody messes with Joe”.
More than any of his predecessors, Trump approached his initial State of the Union as an extension of his previous campaign. For instance, he categorized 2016 as the year “the Earth shifted beneath our feet” and the nation’s silent majority rose up.
“The quiet voices became a loud chorus as thousands of citizens now spoke out together, from cities small and large, all across our country,” Trump trumpeted. “Finally, the chorus became an earthquake, and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand: that America must put its own citizens first. Because only then can we truly Make America Great Again.”
Another way Trump’s SOTU stood out from his predecessors was that he only mentioned the national debt once. After decades of being a bipartisan focal point, its time in the spotlight appears to have passed.
Trump went on to call for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, an initiative that got lost amidst the many battles of his tenure. Instead, Joe Biden will make his $2 trillion infrastructure program a central component of his own speech.
America’s 250th birthday was the bookend for this address, which seemed to be a bit of a misnomer, since the nation’s 250th anniversary will occur in 2026. If Donald Trump does indeed attempt a comeback in 2024, however, this rhetorical benchmark may very well return.
Nick Field (@nick_field90) is a contributor to Decision Desk HQ