First-Term Presidents and State of the Union Big Asks

One year in, what presidents ask for when their party controls Congress

President Donald Trump will outline his priorities to a Congress controlled by his fellow Republicans during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. That’s a fairly rare thing for presidents. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump will outline his priorities to a Congress controlled by his fellow Republicans during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. That’s a fairly rare thing for presidents. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Jason Dick
Posted January 30, 2018 at 5:04am

U.S. presidents rarely get the luxury of starting their terms with their own political party in charge of Congress, something that enables both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to think big.

For those who do, it’s not rare to hear them ask for big things in the State of the Union address ahead of their first congressional midterms. Nor is it rare for them to have such big thoughts crash to earth in November, when the president’s party usually takes a beating. 

Since the end of World War II, only six presidents have started their terms with their own party in control of both chambers. Only two of them saw their party retain control of the legislative branch after the first midterm election. (This group does not include Lyndon B. Johnson, whose first election after taking office was a presidential one.)

Watch: What You Won’t See On Camera at the State of the Union

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Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman was a unique case, having become president on April 12, 1945, after Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Democrats controlled both chambers. He did not deliver a speech, but released a written message on Jan. 21, 1946, that combined the State of the Union with his budget request.

Truman had plenty to crow about. The previous year, the United States had  defeated the Axis powers to end World War II. “It was the greatest year of achievement in human history,” Truman wrote. He asked for no less than a transformation from a wartime to peacetime economy. 

“The lives of millions of veterans and war workers will be greatly affected by the success or failure of our program of war liquidation and reconversion,” he wrote, detailing the rationale and money he thought was required. Truman’s Gallup Poll approval rating in early January was 63 percent.

Democrats lost control of both chambers in the 1946 election.

Dwight D. Eisenhower 

Truman’s successor, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, came into office with Republican majorities after the 1952 elections. The GOP started with thin margins — 48 senators to the Democrats’ 47 and one independent, and a House advantage of 221-213  with one independent. 

What followed was, at least for the Senate, unprecedented instability for the 83rd Congress. Nine senators died and one resigned, shifting party divisions to and fro.

By the time Eisenhower delivered his State of the Union on Jan. 7, 1954, there were 47 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent, although the GOP was, at least according to how the Senate was officially organized, still controlling the chamber. 

Eisenhower could brag about the end of combat on the Korean peninsula and a growing economy. He asked for continued development of the Interstate Highway System, arguably his biggest legacy, as well as support for suffrage: a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, statehood for Hawaii and voting rights for Washington, D.C.

“There has been, in fact, a great strategic change in the world during the past year. That precious intangible, the initiative, is becoming ours,” Eisenhower said. At the time, he had Gallup approval ratings approaching 70 percent. 

In the 1954 elections, the voters shifted the majorities, with Democrats taking a 48-47-1 Senate advantage and a House majority of 232-203. 

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy started his presidency with strong Democratic majorities (a 64-36 Senate margin and a 264-173 House one). And by the time he delivered his 1962 State of the Union on Jan. 11, he had sky-high approval ratings — 79 percent, according to Gallup. 

He opened on a sad note, memorializing Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, a fulcrum of the Democrats’ “Austin-Boston” alliance — along with Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy and new Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts. Rayburn had died the previous November. 

“This week we begin anew our joint and separate efforts to build the American future. But, sadly, we build without a man who linked a long past with the present and looked strongly to the future. ‘Mister Sam’ Rayburn is gone. Neither this House nor the nation is the same without him,” Kennedy said.

He then asked for tax cuts, guaranteed health insurance for the elderly — what would eventually become Medicare — and an expansion of trade agreements, among other big-ticket items. 

“It is the fate of this generation — of you in the Congress and of me as president — to live with a struggle we did not start, in a world we did not make. But the pressures of life are not always distributed by choice. And while no nation has ever faced such a challenge, no nation has ever been so ready to seize the burden and the glory of freedom,” he concluded. 

Democrats went against the grain that fall, gaining two Senate seats and losing just over a handful of House seats, but retaining a 258-176 majority, with one independent Democrat.

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter slotted into office in 1976 with a healthy 61 Democratic senators and 292 House Democrats. Even with a moribund economy and multiple international crises, Carter still had a Gallup approval rating just north of 50 percent when he delivered his Jan. 19, 1978, State of the Union.

He asked for tax cuts, a government reorganization that would create an Education Department, cutting regulations and a comprehensive nuclear test ban — a nod to the perils of the deeply freezing Cold War.

Carter noted there was no defining issue like a world or civil war, but nonetheless the country faced multiple problems to be addressed. 

“At such times, the risk of inaction can be equally great. It becomes the task of leaders to call forth the vast and restless energies of our people to build for the future,” he said. 

There were few places to go but down for Democrats that November, and down they went, even though they held on to big majorities: 58-41-1 in the Senate and 278-157 in the House. 

Midterm troubles returned for the next two presidents whose parties went into the first midterms with majorities.

Bill Clinton

In 1994, Bill Clinton, like Kennedy, paid respects to another legendary speaker who had died, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. The Massachusetts Democrat had left office after the 1986 elections and died Jan. 4, 1994, just days before Clinton’s Jan. 25 address. 

Clinton then went into brag-and-ask mode, boasting that with Democrats in charge, “We replaced drift and deadlock with renewal and reform. And I want to thank every one of you here who heard the American people, who broke gridlock, who gave them the most successful teamwork between a president and a Congress in 30 years.”

He cited a deficit-cutting package, a tax hike on the wealthy and tax cuts for the middle and lower classes, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the gun control law named after former White House Press Secretary Jim Brady.

He previewed his push for a welfare overhaul and then went for the biggest ask: universal health care, not that he didn’t know the odds. “If you look at history, we see that for 60 years this country has tried to reform health care,” Clinton said. “President Roosevelt tried. President Truman tried. President Nixon tried. President Carter tried. Every time, the special interests were powerful enough to defeat them. But not this time.”

He went there anyway, armed with 56 Senate seats, 258 House seats and a 54 percent Gallup approval rating. 

Democrats were swept out in November, with Republicans holding 52 Senate seats after Election Day (and gaining two more shortly after in party switches) and 230 House seats.

Barack Obama

Clinton’s signature request that night was also on Barack Obama’s mind on Jan. 27, 2010, the last State of the Union when he would address a Congress controlled exclusively by his party. 

“It is precisely to relieve the burden on middle class families that we still need health insurance reform,” he said, acknowledging that, with Republican Scott P. Brown’s shocking win that month in a Massachusetts Senate special election, the politics of health care was a minefield that was about to reduce the Democrats’ 60-seat Senate margin to 59.

“Now, let’s clear a few things up. I didn’t choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics,” he said.

That provoked laughter from both sides of the aisle.

There was a lot going on. The Great Recession hung over the nation. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars did, too. Obama pressed for tougher regulation of financial markets, the Dodd-Frank bill, and climate change legislation.

He asked the Senate to restore pay-as-you-go spending rules. He knocked the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision deregulating campaign finance, asking Congress to address that.

Obama’s Gallup approval ratings had dipped south of positive territory, hovering around 48 percent at the time of the Jan. 27 speech. He seemed to sense the uphill battle. 

“To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town — a supermajority — then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well,” he said.

Voters lowered the boom in November, with Republicans winning 242 House seats. The Democrats’ 193-seat total marked the first time they had dipped below 200 members since 1947. Democrats lost Senate seats but did retain their majority with 53 seats. 

Donald Trump

As Donald Trump prepares for his big speech on Jan. 31, he has an approval rating lower than any of these predecessors at this point in their tenures. Gallup pegged it at 38 percent this past week.

His GOP colleagues have a 51-49 Senate majority and 238 House members to the Democrats’ 193. Four vacancies are set to be filled this year. 

Looking back at the presidents who faced their first midterms with their own party controlling Congress, the trends are clear and likely put whatever Trump asks for in his State of the Union at the mercy of broader political winds. 

Watch: Trump’s 2018 Legislative Agenda Already is Slipping

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