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Once a written text known as the Annual Message to Congress, the State of the Union has evolved into a prime-time television event. There’s policy behind the tradition and the pomp: James Monroe announced what would become the Monroe Doctrine in his 1823 message, and George W. Bush first used the phrase “Axis of Evil” during his 2002 address. We explore the history of the State of the Union.
- David Greenberg Woodrow Wilson Fellow; Associate Professor of Journalism, Media Studies, and History, Rutgers University
President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 State of the Union Address is widely considered to be the first “modern” SOTU:
Ronald Reagan offered some brief historical perspective on the SOTU in his 1983 speech:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe following passage is from a State of the Union address by the president to Congress. Quoting here, "We are rightly proud of the high standards of medical care we know how to provide in the United States. The fact is, however, that most of our people cannot afford to pay for the care they need. I have often and strongly urged that this condition demands a national health program. The heart of the program must be a national system of payment for medical care based on well tried insurance principles. This great nation cannot afford to allow its citizens to suffer needlessly from the lack of proper medical care.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOur ultimate aim must be a comprehensive insurance system to protect all our people equally against insecurity and ill health." Who said that? Quick, quick. A hint, it wasn't Bill Clinton, nor was it Barack Obama. It was President Harry Truman, back in his 1948 State of the Union address. Joining us for a look back at the traditional presidential speech to Congress is David Greenberg. He's currently a Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow. He's a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. David Greenberg, good to see you again.
MR. DAVID GREENBERGGood to see you.
NNAMDIBy the way, if you recall any memorable State of the Union addresses, you can start calling right now to tell us what and why, 800-433-8850. David, historically, the president delivered an annual message to Congress, that tradition dating back to George Washington. What was the original purpose of it?
GREENBERGWell, the constitution says that the president should inform Congress, it's very informal language, from time to time about the state of the Union. So it sounds like a kind of casual conversation and, of course, the government was much smaller in those days. It really is a way for our system, with its separation of powers, to have a formal point of contact between the executive and the legislative branch. It's obviously evolved into something a lot bigger.
NNAMDIIt sure has. It's not all for show. There have been real policy announcements in the State of the Union message. James Monroe in 1823 laid out what would become the Monroe Doctrine.
GREENBERGThat's right. And in those days, in the 19th century, it was a written message. The first two presidents, Washington and John Adams, did give spoken addresses. But after that, presidents chose to send messages to Congress as a written message and typically they were pretty uneventful. There were obviously some exceptions. It was only when we get to the 20th century with Woodrow Wilson that you start -- do you start to get the spoken address to Congress and that really changes things dramatically.
NNAMDIWhy did Woodrow Wilson decide to do it by way of making a speech? What was the idea?
GREENBERGWell, Wilson, as you may know, was a political scientist and a university professor. And in his study of government, he had always felt that, while he respected the separation of powers, that it had gone too far, that the president was weakened by not having enough role in legislation. And this he saw as a way of bringing the President into closer contact with Congress. And it began really -- the president as our chief legislator as well as an administrator or one who just kind of oversees and implements Congress' policies. And obviously in the 20th century, presidents have continued to do that.
NNAMDIWe're looking at the State of Union address through time and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think the tradition of an annual address to Congress is still important or do you think it's just, well, a show? 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Lyndon Johnson was the first to give his address on primetime television in 1965. He laid out the principles of his great society. Let's listen.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSONBut we want progress to be the servant and not the master of man. We do not intend to live in the midst of abundance isolated from neighbors and nature, confined by blighted cities and bleak suburbs, stunted by a poverty of learning and an emptiness of leisure. A great society asks not how much, but how good. (applause)
NNAMDILyndon Johnson's was the first primetime State of the Union address in 1965. Before that, the first ever non-primetime address to be televised was Harry Truman's 1947 State of the Union. The New York Times noted that the picture was clear enough to see him smile. How did television transform the address?
GREENBERGTelevision's obviously important for the presidency in a lot of ways. One thing it does is it really continues and intensifies what I talked about beginning with Wilson, this notion of president now as the driver of policy. You see it first with radio. Calvin Coolidge puts a State of the Union address on radio and then obviously FDR is a master of radio. But even more so, television makes the president the focal point of our attention as a nation.
GREENBERGAnd when he's going with this big annual message, especially in primetime, it becomes the kind of national event that we now consider to be.
NNAMDIIf a president or a presidential candidate isn't telegenic (sp?) nowadays, can he make it? I mean, if the president happens to, A, win an election without being telegenic and decides that, look, I don't really like the idea of a televised primetime State of the Union address, is he or she sunk?
GREENBERGYou know, it's hard to imagine a president getting that far. I suppose we've had a few who've come to the presidency through the vice presidency, you know. Gerald Ford maybe wasn't the most telegenic of modern presidents. If you choose or if you try to do without television, though, you're generally -- you're sort of damned if you do, damned if you don't. You know, if you're not good on TV, that hurts you, but if you avoid it all together, then you don't have that high profile that presidents need to kind of command the agenda to help influence the way public opinion is going to go.
NNAMDIThe high profile that so many elected officials crave. It's a history of the State of the Union conversation. But we can also look at the future. What are you expecting from President Obama's State of the Union speech tonight? And if not what you were expecting, what would you like to hear? 800-433-8850, what would you like to see, a picture clear enough to see him smile? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Let's go to the phones. Here now is Moez (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Moez, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOEZHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I think the State of the Union is something important. I mean, the president should do it actually more than one time. And he should do it not just because January -- I mean, whenever he needs to communicate something to the nation, the president should come and talk to us and talk to Congress. And a lot of countries do it -- a lot of presidents in other countries do it more than one time. I mean, and I don't want my president just to address the nation when we have crisis only. I mean, can be in peaceful time, too.
NNAMDIWould you like to see it the way it's done in the U.K. where the Prime Minister has to face Parliament each week and get grilled?
MOEZYeah. Yeah, exactly. That's the idea. Like you see -- I mean, in Britain, they have that. I mean, tradition, the Prime Minister...
NNAMDII don't know, David Greenberg, do you think that would fly here? Would a president want to make, from time to time, a more regular basis confronting Congress and getting questions from members?
GREENBERGGiven politics these days, it would probably get -- we'd rival the British pretty quickly. But that's exactly the system that Woodrow Wilson was looking at when he thought we should have more presidential Congressional interaction. He was very much a student and an admirer of the British system.
NNAMDIThe democrats took a shellacking, as President Obama called it, in the November election. Harry Truman found himself in a similar situation in 1946. What parallels do you see or do historians like you see between Obama and Truman?
GREENBERGWell, it's interesting because Truman also then suddenly felt the need to commit to bipartisanship after the Democrats lost the Congress in 1946. And when he first begins his next State of the Union address, he says, looking at the Congressman arrayed before him, I notice a lot of you have moved to the left from where -- last time I was here. And he has a whole paragraph or two about the need for bipartisanship despite differences of opinion.
GREENBERGWhat was interesting, though, is Truman really did hold his ground on those domestic policies, in particular where he really had strong principles, his fair deal, all those policies that would continue Franklin Roosevelt's new deal. And so he talked about bipartisanship, but he also didn't want to sacrifice his core beliefs.
NNAMDIWell, President Obama might be able to begin tonight by saying, I notice a lot of you have been playing musical chairs since the last time I was here. Since tonight we will see Republicans and Democrats intersperse more than 60 members of Congress trying to make sure that they can sit with the other party so to speak.
GREENBERGYes. This, as many listeners may know, is an experiment, kind of being proposed in the wake of the Tucson shootings and the call for greater civility in our politics. We'll see it it's short-lived or long-lived, but it seems like a worthy effort.
NNAMDIYou mentioned that Truman embraced bipartisanship, but not simply through compromise. What was his strategy?
GREENBERGWell, for Truman, he really had -- I don't think it was even a strategy so much as an instinct that he was a very principled man, and he saw that on his foreign policy he could pursue the kind of internationalism that Franklin Roosevelt had pursued, and continue to get a sufficient amount of Republican support, that he could claim a bipartisan foreign policy, which he did. These were the years of NATO, of the Marshall Plan and of what historians generally recognize as an extremely successful period in American foreign policy.
GREENBERGOn domestic policy, Truman had less success, but he went down fighting. And when it came time to run for reelection in 1948, he could rail against the do-nothing 80th Congress that wouldn't pass his agenda and that helped sweep him back into office for a second term.
NNAMDIWhat lessons do you think that President Obama and his advisors are taking from Truman's experience?
GREENBERGWell, it doesn't seem to me that Truman is necessarily their model. I guess we really have to see how much this talk of competitiveness goes beyond the buzz words and gestures toward the business community, and how much it really constitutes a change. As I've seen Obama, he's never been a particularly left-wing president to begin with. He's been kind of a moderate democrat and it seems to me that's he's continuing along those same lines. So it may just be that some of the rhetoric is changing.
NNAMDISteve Coll says he'll talk about Al Qaeda. That's something that both sides can probably agree on. Here is John in Berwyn Heights, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYes, hi. Good afternoon. So I was wondering -- you said what we would like to hear about, and in view of all the economic material, I would like to -- my wish list would be that Obama would address, you know, basically the inequity of wealth distribution in this country and how, as time has gone by, even in the last couple decades, it's gotten worse and it's gotten worse around the world. And I was just hoping that your guest could comment on that.
NNAMDIWell, I know everybody expects him to talk about jobs. Wealth inequity might be a little more troublesome territory for him at this point, might it not?
GREENBERGI think it's troublesome for two reasons. For one thing is it's a kind of issue that will probably not resonate broadly, although in people's lives, of course, it does. It's a real issue that touches everybody's life. The other is, it's much harder for presidents to address these kind of deep structural issues in a speed like this, than it is the kind of -- not necessarily small, but manageable policy prescriptions. You know, let's pass this by the end of the year.
GREENBERGHow much Obama or any president could do about these very large, and I agree with the caller, very significant problems of wealth inequities, you know, is hard to say.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break, but if you have a contribution to the conversation you'd like to make, call us. 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. We're talking with David Greenberg about the history of the State of the Union. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing the history of the State of the Union address with David Greenberg. He is currently a Woodrow Wilson Center fellow. He's a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. In terms of tonight's address, do you think the scrambled seating effect will affect the partisanship that we now see in the Congress of the United States? You can call us 800-433-8850. Or do you think it's just, well, a visual gimmick?
NNAMDIDavid, Bill Clinton's failed health care reform cost democrats the House of Representatives back in 1994, two years after he was elected. That sounds very familiar. On the other hand, Bill Clinton won a second term and left office with the highest approval rating of any president since World War II. Go figure.
GREENBERGYeah. And sometimes you see presidents rebounding in second terms. It's not uncommon for presidents, at least in the modern era to have some pretty intense fluctuations in the presidency. We saw this with Reagan, we saw this with both Bush presidents in different ways.
NNAMDIAnd we're seeing it now with Obama.
GREENBERGAbsolutely. Whether he's on an upswing again, or whether this is a temporary blip, we don't know. But, you know, if I were to bet, I'd say he's probably got a pretty good chance, you know, better than even chance for reelection certainly.
NNAMDIWe all remember that Bill Clinton's most anticipated State of the Union address was in 1998 after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But let's listen to what he actually talked about.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTONNow, if we balance the budget for next year, it is projected that we'll then have a sizeable surplus in the years that immediately follow. What should we do with this projected surplus? I have a simple four-word answer. Save social security first. (applause)
NNAMDIAfter that speech, his poll numbers reached the highest level of his presidency.
GREENBERGIt was a brilliant speech, that forward phrase and the lead up to it in particular. But the whole speech in general, he really showed himself to be able to compartmentalize, was the phrase people used in those days, but I think it was more than that. He showed himself able to focus on people's problems, to remind them of why they had elected him twice, that attention to policy detail, that concern with people's every day kitchen table economic issues.
GREENBERGAll of that sort of came through in this mastery of policy that he would put forward in his State of the Union addresses. And the one in 1998, I think, was his most successful.
NNAMDISpeaking of policy, and going back to Woodrow Wilson, is the State of the Union an effective way to introduce a major new policy initiative?
GREENBERGWell, it has to be done carefully because it's easy to get drowned out by the laundry list, and the laundry list is a phrase that's been used for ages to describe the whole series of legislative and other proposals that presidents put forward. But typically, if you can put out one big new slightly surprising agenda item, it can sort of rise to the top, command the headlines, and you can then get some lasting push on that through the Congressional session. So it's certainly possible, and I think the danger is, you can't try to do too much in one speech.
NNAMDII was about to say it can be difficult to keep the speeches from becoming a laundry list of policies. How have presidents handled that?
GREENBERGWell, often by having their speeches sort of fade into oblivion after they're given. That's precisely what most of these speeches are. And the best of them do rise by selecting one or two key issues. We also have, of course, the tradition really made famous by Ronald Reagan of pointing to individual heroic American citizens who are seated in the balcony, who can then be used to give the speech some biography, some narrative drive, some emotion. So it's not simply a long list of policy proposals.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned about how they point people out in the audience because a man named Lenny Skutnik holds a place in the history of the State of Union addresses.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGANJust two weeks ago in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest. The heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters, and we saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik. Who, when we saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.
NNAMDIThat was the Air Florida crash in 1980. How effective was that?
GREENBERGVery effective. You know, if you were playing 20 questions, pick Lenny Skutnik, it will be a great choice. You know, his name has remained one that that at least of many us still remember, and it did begin this tradition. Bush actually -- George Bush, the elder, did not use it quite so much. He tended to put in the balcony people like Norman Schwarzkopf after winning the Gulf War. But Clinton really brought it back with a vengeance.
GREENBERGAnd Clinton loved to put individuals, you know, a teacher from AmeriCorps, or someone like that up to highlight his own policy proposals. And it kind of -- it's sort of like the fashion show has become to Oscar night. It produces this whole sideline of commentary among the pundits of who's going to be singled out tonight.
NNAMDIThat Air Florida crash from National Airport in 1980, not only can you play 20 questions -- 1982. Not only can you play 20 questions, you can play trivial pursuit. What disc jockey lost his job as a result of a comment he made about that Air Florida crash in 1982?
GREENBERGThat one you got me, Kojo.
GREENBERGHoward Stern, when he called up Air Florida and said, on the air, I'd like to buy a ticket to the 14th Street Bridge. Because that was where the plane crashed. He got fired as a result of that. Here is Mark in Fairfax, Va. Mark, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi. I've enjoyed your show quite a bit from the historical perspective of the meaning of the State of the Union speech, and I wonder if your guest would really comment on how much the, you know, the theatricality and releasing the speech to whatever the opposing party is and Congress first, and singling out common citizens in the audience, to really -- for points, you know, for polling. And I'd like him to comment on how much of it -- the theater, has removed the original intent and even the effectiveness of communicating to the American public. And I'll take your response off the air.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Mark. David?
GREENBERGWell, it's a good question. You know, there is some dispute about the original intent since, as I mentioned earlier, Washington and Adams did deliver spoken messages and it was only Jefferson who was really a believer in a much more limited presidency somewhat ironically because he was activist himself as president. But it was Jefferson who reverted, or who initiated this 19th century tradition. On the other hand, I would say politics itself has just changed.
GREENBERGThe presidency has changed for more than 100 years now. And we can't go back to an earlier form. The presidency is about theater in part. It's about performance, and that's not a bad thing. That's just different from the way it once was. And good presidents include in their bag of tricks the ability to speak well, the ability to command an audience, the ability to get good press. That's part of what being a good president is.
NNAMDITonight, every time you hear them talking -- every time the speech is talked about in the news media tonight, they're saying there will be two responses, one from the Republican party, another from the Tea Party. How regularly has that occurred in the past?
GREENBERGYou know, I don't know of that having happened before. It's possible it has. The Republican or the, you know, opposing party's response is actually a fairly recent innovation. And only, you know, in the last, I don't know, ten or fifteen years has there been sort of this excitement around who is going to deliver that response. It's sort of yet another stream of commentary for the pundits. I sort of rather like the fact that there's going to be two Republican responses.
GREENBERGIt sort of creates this profusion of messages and, you know, who are the leaders of the opposition, and it gets us all kind of wondering.
NNAMDIBut does that not mean in future presidencies of a Republican you might not see responses from the Democratic party, the Green party, and would then no other smaller parties be insisting that they should be allowed to respond also? What have we created here?
GREENBERGRight. Soon it will be like those presidential debates which, you know, where somehow everybody manages to get up on stage, not just the major candidates, but all the minor candidates too. And look, there's a place for those too in our politics.
NNAMDIHere is Chris is Warrenton, Va. Chris, we are running out of time. Please make your comment or question brief.
CHRISOkay. Well, I love your show. And you asked a question about moving -- putting the Democrats and Republicans -- kind of mixing them up at the State of Union, whether that was symbolic or substantial, and I'd say it doesn't matter either way, and hopefully it would be substantial. But it's a great gesture. I did vote for Obama, and I said that to me, the success of his presidency would depend on whether he could actually accomplish just that, which is getting the people to cross the aisle.
NNAMDIWhat do you think it can accomplish, David Greenberg, besides those of us viewers constantly looking to see who's sitting down and who's standing up where and at what point?
GREENBERGWell, look, I mean, at some level it has to be acknowledged as symbolism and I'm not going to suggest it's going to go a long way. But symbolism can be sort of self-fulfilling as I was saying to the last caller. That in the right mood, or in the right context, gestures can be translated into achievement. And it if loosens the mood and gets bipartisan cooperation for some good bills to be passed, so much the better.
NNAMDIDavid Greenberg, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIDavid Greenberg is currently a Woodrow Wilson Center fellow. He's a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez, and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. The engineer today, Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman has been on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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