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State Of The Union Advice From 43 Guys In The Know

President Clinton acknowledges the applause from members of Congress prior to his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 1998. Joe Marquett/AP hide caption

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Joe Marquett/AP

President Clinton acknowledges the applause from members of Congress prior to his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 1998.

Joe Marquett/AP

When President Obama takes the stage at the U.S. Capitol to deliver his second State of the Union address Tuesday night, he can look to history — and his predecessors — for a few lessons.

"He's in a classic situation of trying to rebound from a serious midterm loss," says presidential historian John T. Woolley, chair of the political science department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "History helps, and I'm sure he and his speechwriters are going to be well-informed about prior speeches and prior models."

Woolley, too, is well-informed about those speeches. He co-founded the website The American Presidency Project, which maintains a collection of public documents from every president dating back to George Washington, in addition to every State of the Union address in the history of the republic. That's 229 State of the Union presentations (138 submitted in writing; 91 orally).

So we asked Woolley how history might help this president.

Q: Which previous presidents faced similar circumstances ahead of the State of the Union address?

A: If you look at the proportion of seat losses in the House and the Senate and the presidential approval rates, probably the closest historic analogues for Obama are Clinton and Harry Truman — the 1995 and 1947 [speeches]. Both of those presidents had lost control of both houses, so they were actually in a strategically worse situation than Obama is in.

If you look back to the Truman and Clinton speeches, you can see lots of things you know Obama is going to emphasize. Any president in this situation is going to talk about these things, like the need for bipartisanship to solve the nation's problems. He'll invoke Truman because Truman beat back major adversity. He had lost terribly in the 1946 midterm elections — [his fellow Democrats] got pummeled. He came back in 1948 and won, and everyone was surprised. And both houses were controlled by the opposition. I suspect that every president in a difficult [situation] harkens back to Harry Truman.

Q: How might Obama channel Truman or other previous presidents?

President Truman delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1951. AP hide caption

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President Truman delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1951.


A: He may quote Truman. Actually, there's a nice paragraph from his 1947 speech:

"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. But there are ways of disagreeing; men who differ can still work together sincerely for the common good. We shall be risking the nation's safety and destroying our opportunities for progress if we do not settle any disagreements in this spirit, without thought of partisan advantage."

The most instructive situation may have been Ronald Reagan's. That was 1983. His approval ratings at the time right after the [midterm] elections were actually lower than Obama's. ... He was able to do something in his speech I'm sure Obama will want to do, which was [take] pride in his accomplishments and show the determination to defend it.

Obama will definitely want to channel Reagan's feeling of optimism and having a positive agenda and the determination to carry it through.

Q: How might Obama accomplish that and still candidly address America's challenges ahead?

A: There's actually a classic bad example: Gerald Ford in 1975. He became president after Nixon resigned, the Republicans got slaughtered in midterms. So he gives a very somber, downbeat, realistic State of the Union address. He actually said the State of the Union is not good. ... That didn't go over well.

There are other bad examples from Jimmy Carter, not his State of the Union speeches but like in his [1979] "malaise" speech.

In these kinds of moments, people don't want to be told how bad things are unless at the same time they can be told how things can get better. They don't want to think the president is depressing because that's depressing [to the public]. We want him to be optimistic and carry us along with him. ... It's really hard to pull off that kind of sober 'we have to face realities' talk and not have it go off the rails.

Obama's current approval ratings have ticked above 50 percent. ... I think the last little bump that he's gotten is almost certainly a classic example of what we'd call a public opinion rally. It goes back to the Tucson shootings, and the public horror in all that leads people to rally around the president as the nation's unifying, calming figure. Obama's speech at the Tucson memorial was superb. He will want to try to invoke all of that feeling, focusing not on him but what's good out in the world.

Q: You mentioned Reagan's success at defending his accomplishments. Which of Obama's achievements will he try to defend?

President Reagan delivers his State of the Union speech on Jan. 25, 1984. Bob Daugherty/AP hide caption

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Bob Daugherty/AP

President Reagan delivers his State of the Union speech on Jan. 25, 1984.

Bob Daugherty/AP

He's definitely going to defend his health care law and call out the [House] Republicans for voting to repeal it. He's going to say that instead of working with him to make things better in it, they repealed it — and that's just pure partisanship.

He's going to remind people what he got accomplished this December — the tax deal, [repeal of] "don't ask don't tell." ... All of that was popular in the point of view of moderate voters. ... It's part of this theme that I've tracked back to Truman — the need to work together to solve the nation's problems. He'll express regret that the Republicans haven't met him on it.

Q: Historically, have presidents used the State of the Union for a broader political or policy gain, beyond the speech itself?

By and large, it's not a huge event. What people get out of it more than anything else is a kind of feeling ... the feeling that the guy has good ideas and is moving forward and is realistic. There are some instances where we remember actual phrases and so forth from State of the Union addresses, but it's not that common a thing. ... It's more theme, tone, positive feeling. It can't just be vapid.

Q: If the State of the Union speech traditionally delivers limited impact beyond the moment, why do we pay it so much attention?

A: Well, there's always the danger that it'll go off badly. That's the exciting possibility ... that maybe some goofy congressman will stand up and say, 'You lie.' Or the president will do something like Obama did [last year] where he lays into the Supreme Court. There is a lot of opportunity for drama.

And the possibility that the president is going to announce something new or tries to take the country in a new or different direction. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary for a guy like him to do that; to do something that's at odds with the traditional liberal position for how to solve a problem, because he has room to tack to the center on some issues.

We want to take the president's pulse. How's he doing? Like with Clinton — How's he holding up after Monica Lewinsky? Can he pull this off?