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In First Addresses, Presidents Can Frame Debate

While not technically a ‘State of the Union,’ the speeches still matter

President Barack Obama first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009 echoed some of the major themes of President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 speech. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo Pool file photo)
President Barack Obama first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009 echoed some of the major themes of President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 speech. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo Pool file photo)

In recent years, a newly elected president’s first address to Congress has taken a strange turn, losing its status as a “State of the Union” in favor of some other designation, such as “administration goals” or “budget message.” 

The thinking here is that someone new to office isn’t in a position to outline what’s going on in the country.

That might seem odd to anyone who listens to presidential candidates in the years leading up to a general election. So these first speeches to joint sessions of Congress, for all intents and purposes, are State of the Union addresses. It’s a distinction without a difference.

“For research purposes, it is probably harmless to categorize these as State of the Union messages. The impact of such a speech on public, media, and congressional perceptions of presidential leadership and power should be the same as if the address was an official State of the Union,” Gerhard Peters of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project notes on his organization’s website.

The last five presidents have all delivered such speeches, starting with Ronald Reagan’s “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery” on Feb. 18, 1981.

Reagan was striking in his assessment of a country in a gloomy mood that he was determined to pull it out of, detailing the unemployment picture and decrying inflation and interest rates at “absurd” levels.

Pivoting to what he called “America’s new beginning,” he implored Congress “to join me in making it our plan. Together, we can embark on this road.” After receiving thunderous applause, Reagan brandished his wit.

“Thank you very much. I should have arranged to quit right here,” he said.

He didn’t, but nor did he dawdle, and delivered just a few more minutes of pep talk.

“The people are watching and waiting. They don’t demand miracles. They do expect us to act. Let us act together.”

Twenty-eight years later, Barack Obama delivered similar remarks in his Feb. 24, 2009 address that outlined the depth of an economic crisis and called for collective action.

“While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight, I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” he said.

Bill Clinton opened with a joke, a moment of self-deprecation about his infamously tedious speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

“It is nice to have a fresh excuse for giving a long speech,” he said on the occasion of his Feb. 17, 1993 “Administration Goals” speech.

The first Baby Boomer president then invoked his idol, John F. Kennedy, saying, “Our nation needs a new direction. Tonight, I present to you a comprehensive plan to set our nation on that new course.” It was a statement that came as the country was pulling out of a recession and entering a new, post-Cold War era.

Sometimes, presidents reach for historic parallels and even poetry.

On Feb. 9, 1989, George H.W. Bush recalled a radio speech by Winston Churchill that took place 48 years prior to the date of his address.

That speech by the British prime minister was a charge for Britons to keep the faith during the German Blitz. In it, Churchill thanked President Franklin D. Roosevelt for sending a letter quoting the poem “O Ship of State” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Humanity with all its fears, With all the hopes of future years, Is hanging breathless on thy fate!”

Bush continued that Churchill responded to Roosevelt: “‘We shall not fail or falter,’ he said. ‘We shall not weaken or tire. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.’”

Bush allowed that “tonight, almost half a century later, our peril may be less immediate, but the need for perseverance and clear-sighted fortitude is just as great. … We Americans have only begun on our mission of goodness and greatness. And to those timid souls, I repeat the plea: ‘Give us the tools, and we will do the job.’”

His son, George W. Bush, delivered what was billed as a “Budget Message” on Feb. 27, 2001.

But in that speech, much of which dwelled on taxes, deficits and the role of government, were prescient statements.

“Our nation also needs a clear strategy to confront the threats of the 21st century, threats that are more widespread and less certain. They range from terrorists who threaten with bombs to tyrants in rogue nations intent upon developing weapons of mass destruction,” he said, just a little more than six months before the 9/11 attacks.

“A strong America is the world’s best hope for peace and freedom,” Bush said 16 years ago.

It’s a statement still being debated.

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