Joke, Flatter, Dig In: Handling Post-Shellacking SOTUs
If President Barack Obama is looking to break the ice at Tuesday’s State of the Union, he could do worse than quote Harry S. Truman, who in 1947, just a few months after his party lost its majorities in the House and Senate, told the assembled Congress: “It looks like a good many of you have moved over to the left since I was last here!”
The American political system can be cruel. Someone wins, many lose. The person usually blamed for losing — the president — must speak before a room full of winners, most of whom think they can do a better job than him. But small moments of humor, grace or pugnacity still find their ways into the chief executive’s annual address.
Take Truman. In November 1946, a little more than a year after giving the order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and end World War II, the Democratic president’s party lost 45 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate. After his opening quip on Jan. 6, 1947, Truman told the 80th Congress that the war effort was a reminder they could work together, even if they didn’t agree on everything. “Partisan differences, however, did not cause material disagreements as to the conduct of the war,” he said. “On some domestic issues we may, and probably shall, disagree. That in itself is not to be feared. It is inherent in our form of government.”
Truman also found his own revenge. Famously dubbing these lawmakers the “Do-Nothing Congress,” he won his 1948 election and Democrats regained control of both chambers.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, after seeing his Republicans narrowly lose the majority in both chambers, largely skipped the pleasantries on Jan. 6, 1955. “First, I extend cordial greetings to the 84th Congress. We shall have much to do together; I am sure that we shall get it done — and, that we shall do it in harmony and goodwill,” the former supreme commander of allied forces during World War II said from the well of the House.
He then outlined the many things to do and ponder, from how to conduct diplomacy with Soviet-bloc countries to pushing the Interstate Highway System to drought in agricultural areas. Overall, a pretty dry speech, and a call to get to work in post-war America.
“A decade ago, in the death and desolation of European battlefields, I saw the courage and resolution, I felt the inspiration, of American youth. In these young men I felt America’s buoyant confidence and irresistible will-to-do,” Ike said. Perhaps the general who had the responsibility of sending Allied soldiers to certain death in the victory against Adolf Hitler wasn’t terribly troubled that his party had lost 18 House seats and one Senate seat.
It would be 32 years before another president had to face the music after seeing his party lose a majority. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s coattails helped sweep Republicans to control of the Senate for the first time since Eisenhower’s first term.
Six years later, with the Iran-Contra affair beginning to bloom and facing a talented class of Senate Democrats, the GOP lost eight Senate seats and the majority, and subtracted five more from its minority House caucus. Reagan responded on Jan. 27, 1987, by congratulating the 100th Congress, extolling the 200th anniversary of the Constitution — and quoting Eisenhower’s 1955 speech.
“Now, there’s a new face at this place of honor tonight. And please join me in warm congratulations to the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright. [Applause] Mr. Speaker, you might recall a similar situation in your very first session of Congress 32 years ago. Then, as now, the speakership had changed hands and another great son of Texas, Sam Rayburn — ‘Mr. Sam’— sat in your chair. I cannot find better words than those used by President Eisenhower that evening. He said, ‘We shall have much to do together; I am sure that we will get it done and that we shall do it in harmony and goodwill.’ Tonight I renew that pledge,” the Gipper said, adding, “Though there are changes in the Congress, America’s interests remain the same.”
Eight years later, Bill Clinton was the one going hat in hand, to the opening of the 104th Congress. It was the first time Republicans had controlled both chambers since Eisenhower’s time. Clinton was well aware.
“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,” the man, who famously told America ”I feel your pain,” said on Jan. 25, 1995.
His successor, the man who has described himself as Clinton’s “brother from another mother,” George W. Bush, saw Republican majorities in the 2006 elections wash away. Going before the 110th Congress on Jan. 23, 2007, Bush was able to open with historical flourish: “Thank you very much. And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker. In his day, the late Congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., from Baltimore, Maryland, saw Presidents Roosevelt and Truman at this rostrum. But nothing could compare with the sight of his only daughter, Nancy, presiding tonight as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Congratulations, Madam Speaker.”
However Obama begins his address, it is not likely to be as somber as the occasion of his Jan. 25, 2011, speech. Although Democrats lost their House majority in what Obama himself described as 2010′s midterm “shellacking,” the chamber had on its mind the shooting just 17 days before near Tucson, Ariz., where Jared Lee Loughner killed six and injured 13 more, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“Tonight I want to begin by congratulating the men and women of the 112th Congress, as well as your new Speaker, John Boehner. And as we mark this occasion, we’re also mindful of the empty chair in this Chamber, and we pray for the health of our colleague and our friend Gabby Giffords,” Obama began. With no room for jocularity, Obama outlined the “reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passion and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater, something more consequential than party or political preference.”
Echoing aspects of Eisenhower’s 1955 speech, Obama repeated the phrase, “we do big things,” as he closed. Echoing Reagan’s 1987 speech, in which the Republican closed with the constitutional refrain, “we, the people,” Obama concluded with his own claim.
“The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice,” he said. “And tonight more than two centuries later, it’s because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our Union is strong.”
His party had lost 63 House seats and the majority in that chamber. Democrats held on to the Senate majority, but they lost that last year. Amid veto threats, terrorist attacks in France and myriad partisan flare-ups, and given the relative gravity of Obama’s previous addresses to Congress, it’s unclear if the president or his speechwriters will allot much room for humor.