In 1996, Bill Clinton used the occasion to declare that “the era of big government is over” and in 2002, fresh off the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush asserted that there was an “Axis of Evil” supporting terrorism – two modestly historic moments in what has been an otherwise lackluster tradition. Typically, over the past few decades, the State of the Union has gone this way: a laundry list of requested legislation, a series of oratorical riffs aimed at reinforcing the president’s political base, and, since Ronald Reagan first did it in 1982, the requisite guest in the gallery: someone who can personalize the message for the president by his or her very presence. Barack Obama’s two State of the Union addresses have not broken this stale mold, yielding but one scene of memorable drama, in 2010, when the president admonished the Supreme Court for its decision in Citizens United and Associate Justice Samuel Alito mouthed from his seat, “Not true.”
Perhaps the problem is with the Constitution’s language – look at it again; it requests information, not inspiration, and in fact, for much of the nation’s history the annual address was delivered in written form, more a “report” than a message and certainly not a speech. While Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge all gave oral addresses (Wilson’s 1913 speech to Congress was the first since John Adams) only since Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933 has the President’s Annual Message to Congress, as it was formally known until 1947, been regularly delivered as a speech. Even after that, presidents sometimes followed with a more extensive written filing. In 1972, Richard Nixon who found the traditional format tedious (“Why do we have to have all that dull stuff about agriculture and cesspools?” he demanded to know) gave the shortest State of the Union speech on record (28 minutes, 30 seconds) but submitted a 17,000 word written annual report that went into much of the “dull stuff” that he presumably didn’t want to pronounce from the podium.
Still, Nixon was asking the right question. Why must the State of the Union be so forgettable and formulaic? Why should the one moment each year when the president has the attention of the Congress and the rest of the nation be squandered on trivialities and partisan chest-thumping?
This year, especially, the nation needs something better than “dull,” better than the recent orgy of political squabbling. It needs what George H. W. Bush used to derisively call “the vision thing.” It needs for the president to not only seek support for his policies (that much is expected), but to put those policies in some kind of context, to help us understand our confusing world and America’s place in it. It needs an image, a dream, a vision.
In 1934, in the throes of the Great Depression, a situation which was as confusing as it was painful, Franklin Roosevelt focused his first State of the Union speech on alerting the country to a shift of undeniable historical forces: the old horse and buggy world was gone, he said, and a new age was emerging. There was no way the country could “return to old methods” nor would it want to; instead, the American people needed to grasp the meaning of a “permanent readjustment of many of our ways of thinking and therefore many of our social and economic arrangements…” That included a new level of relief for the suffering, something that felt uncomfortable to most people when viewed against the American principle of self-reliance, but that was okay, Roosevelt told his audience, for relief would not become a “habit.” “Self-help and self-control would remain “the essence of the American tradition.” A new relationship was emerging where government would smooth the rough edges of free enterprise and offer a hand to the needy.
Half a century after Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan did the same thing, preparing the nation for a new, emerging world order. Fresh off of a landslide reelection, Reagan quoted from Proverbs in his 1985 State of the Union – “without a vision the people perish” -- before going on to describe just that: a vision, this one of a “second” American revolution, one that realigned us with the principles of liberty, principally economic liberty, that had eluded us for most of the 1970s. Reagan projected optimism and strength, a renewed sense of purpose. In his campaign the year before, Reagan had declared that it was “morning in America” again which, when matched against Democratic candidate Walter Mondale’s “America Needs a Change,” seemed almost like a line of poetry.
Reagan’s 1984 acceptance speech at the Republic National convention had provided two more images on which to project American destiny: “a banner of bold colors -- no pale pastels…” and a dream of an America that would look to the rest of the world like “a shining city on a hill.” It was, he later explained, “a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace…” Critics chided him for imagining the return to an America that never was, but the criticism missed the point: you don’t inspire with fact, you inspire with hope.
Tuesday night, delivering his third State of the Union, Barack Obama has a choice. His could join the long list of predictable addresses, forgotten by daybreak. Or he could do something that might, if only for the moment, stifle his critics and provide the nation with a blueprint for a still young century. In a period of time that is being increasingly described as darkly transformative, resting on a foundation as fragile as any since the day of the Great Depression, we need guidance from our president. We need a vision.
Todd Brewster is the Director of the National Constitution Center’s Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.