Lessons From A First State Of The Union Address

The anticipation to tonight's State of the Union address is pretty strong, at least in Washington, where everyone wants to know what he will say, what he will emphasize, and what kind of a response he will get — not only from Republicans but also his fellow Democrats ... which in some ways will be even more closely scrutinized.

President Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress, along with a prime-time national television audience, at 9 p.m. ET, where he will fulfill the constitutionally-mandated requirement of reporting on the "state of the union." It will be his first one.

(And why is tonight officially his first? Why not last year, when he spoke to lawmakers in a much-covered Feb. 24 speech before a joint session of Congress? That speech was the customary one in which a new president lays out his agenda and talks of his priorities. But a president in office a couple of weeks is in no position to report on the "state of the union.")

There will be the obligatory camera shots of who is sitting in the gallery with Michelle Obama. There will certainly be shots of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), he of the famous "You lie" outburst from last September. And if President Obama dares to suggest that the House Democrats "get over it" and rally behind the Senate Democrats' version of health care, you know there will be closeups of a peeved Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In the end, this speech is more a State of the Obama Presidency than a State of the Union. The administration has been rocked in recent weeks, none more so than the perception — real or otherwise — that health-care legislation has taken a deadly hit in the wake of Scott Brown's (R) victory in Massachusetts. Polls, including one recently conducted for NPR, show the Democrats are increasingly losing the battle for public opinion. Tonight is an opportunity, in some ways, for Obama to regain the conversation. It won't be easy.

I was prepared to look back at previous first-time SOTUs and see if there's anything to learn from them. It's hard to come up with a definitive comparison.

President George W. Bush's first State of the Union came on Jan. 29, 2002 — at a time when things were, well, just different. It came some four months and change following the devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Bush's polling numbers were stratospheric — 84 percent in the most recent Gallup survey. He had gone from an asterisk winner to one whose popularity (yes, based on a horrific tragedy) made him untouchable in Washington. The few Democrats who wanted to hear more about, say, the collapse of Enron were drowned out by cheering from both sides of the aisle.

Bush's address to Congress that evening focused only on two topics: foreign policy and budget priorities. Regarding the former, his lumping of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the "axis of evil" is what stands out from the speech. With the latter, he called for making the 2001 tax cuts (1.35 trillion dollars' worth) to be made permanent. Oh yes, something also about a patients bill of rights. A prescription drug benefit.

In the aftermath of 9/11, it was a war president speaking to a supportive Congress.

The first SOTU for Bush's predecessor occurred in a vastly different time — even though it was only eight years earlier — but perhaps it's more analogous to what Obama is facing today. While Bill Clinton's numbers were still good in January of 1994 (60 percent job approval, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll), there were problems on the horizon. Many of his signature proposals — notably health care — were not advancing in Congress. His own party was split on how to tackle the issue. Many of his fellow Democrats had already announced their retirement, with many more departures to come. His own attorney general had just signed off on naming a special prosecutor to deal with something called Whitewater. And, like Obama, Bill Clinton had just watched his party lose gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, not to mention Senate races in Texas and Georgia some months before, as well as the mayoralties of New York and Los Angeles. The Democrats had lost much of the luster it had when Clinton was elected in 1992.

It does sound familiar.

President Clinton reached out to Republicans in his speech by talking about fighting crime and reforming welfare, while at the same time trying to get the Democrats in line on health care. That speech doesn't have lasting memories — I do remember the call for 100,000 more cops on the street — and maybe that's the point. It is a major speech, and the words will be analyzed and scrutinized thoroughly, and we will all tell you what it means.

And then, before we know it, it will be next week, and we — and the American people — will be on to something else.

Bill Clinton did leave the House chamber that evening on a high note. He said what he wanted to say. And the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress that November.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.