As President Barack Obama finalizes his State of the Union address, he must go beyond simply specifying agenda items and sharpening applause lines. After seven years in office, Obama has not yet defined his governing vision. When Bill Clinton—who had a worldview—delivered lengthy State of the Union speeches cataloguing many accomplishments and proposals, reporters mocked his “laundry lists.” Especially now, with legacy talk bubbling up, Obama should synthesize, summarize, and characterize his approach to governance. The purpose is not just to help historians compare his efforts to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, John Kennedy’s New Frontier, or Ronald Reagan’s Revolution. Rather, by branding his presidency and explaining his rationale, Obama could advance the longstanding debate about what government should and should not do.
Understandably, when the president enters the House chamber, he not only feels the nation’s eyes upon him but his predecessors’ words weighing him down. This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s exquisite Four Freedoms address. Roosevelt had already transformed the annual, dry congressional update into a rousing national happening. Thomas Jefferson had considered George Washington’s and John Adams’s personal delivery of the constitutionally-mandated presidential update to Congress highfaluting. In 1801, Jefferson submitted a written text of “The President’s Annual Message to Congress.” Only in 1913 did a president return to address the Congress personally. That year, the progressive president Woodrow Wilson peddled activist measures, from banking reforms to nominating primaries, to advance “the welfare and progress of the Nation.”
Two decades later, FDR, being FDR, milked the moment, reducing the legislators into props to address the people dramatically. In 1936 Roosevelt moved “The State of the Union” address to night-time, maximizing his radio audience. Five years later, he recast the debate about America’s entry into World War II by articulating America’s war aims, eleven months before America actually entered the war.
That January (1941) Roosevelt’s political position was surprisingly wobbly. Republicans had won six million more votes in 1940 than in 1936. The newly-inaugurated third-term president was trying to nudge his isolationist country into world war, despite having proclaimed: “this country is not going to war.”
Roosevelt deftly began his State of the Union speech with a faux apology, calling the moment “unprecedented,” then justifying the word, saying, “at no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today.” He condemned the spreading “new order of tyranny” threatening “the democratic way of life” worldwide, including America. “As a nation we may take pride in the fact that we are soft-hearted,” he quipped; “but we cannot afford to be soft-headed.”
Rather than paralyzing his listeners with fear itself, Roosevelt strengthened morale by promising “Equality of opportunity .… Jobs …. Security” and “civil liberties for all” while seeking “The ending of special privilege for the few.”
Roosevelt shifted from justifying entering the war to imagining the world once the war ended. His “Four Freedoms” of speech and expression, of worship, from want, and from fear—everywhere in the world—gave Americans the language they would use to justify great personal sacrifices in the five bloody years ahead. Long before Norman Rockwell’s 1943 paintings made the Four Freedoms even more iconic, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 masterpiece branded his presidency and his country, expressing his democratic faith that words can unite and inspire millions.
While Bill Clinton never faced such high stakes, he used the State of the Union more effectively than Barack Obama has. Clinton relished, his adviser Bruce Reed recalls, the annual opportunity to sell “his blueprint for governing.” Seeking re-election in 1996, Clinton sought to define America’s “common ground” while shifting to the center and declaring “the era of big government is over.” Clinton added a critical phrase most ignored: “but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.” Clinton’s speechwriter Michael Waldman later reported that earlier drafts proposed adding: “But the era of every man for himself must never begin.” Other staffers found the term “man” sexist, resulting in the soggier, forgettable, follow-up clause.
Four years later, starting his final full year in office, Clinton did what Barack Obama must do tomorrow. Clinton described what Waldman calls his “connective tissue,” the pragmatic, liberal centrist vision underlying his policies that made him a much more ideological president. Revamping the opportunity, responsibility, and community rhetoric that guided him since joining the moderate Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s, Clinton said in January 2000: “We restored the vital center, replacing outmoded ideologies with a new vision anchored in basic, enduring values: opportunity for all, responsibility from all, a community of all Americans.”
Obama has resisted defining himself and often stumbles when he tries. He ran as a post-partisan, no-red-state, no-blue-state Democrat. Reviewing Obama’s pre-2008 campaign book, The Audacity of Hope, Time’s Joe Klein counted “no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness.” Nevertheless, by June 2009, Obama’s unlabeled but quite conventional liberalism had surfaced with his Cairo Speech wooing the Muslim world, the Cash for Clunkers auto bailout, new financial regulations for banks, a health care reform pitch to the American Medical Association, and an LGBT Pride Month White House reception.
Understandably, today’s ugly politics inhibit even mainstream re-elected Democrats from embracing the L-word wholeheartedly. In his 2015 State of the Union, Obama rolled out “Middle Class economics” and “a better politics,” repeating each phrase five times. Both were as flimsy and disposable as a candy wrapper.
Such flaccidity feeds contemporary cynicism. Obama’s stealth liberalism fails to fool Republicans. The shift from “Yes We Can” poet to technocratic cataloguer bores Democrats. And Obama deprives all Americans of the substantive philosophical debate our greatest presidents have sparked.
The seductive pomp and hype of modern State of the Union addresses offer another opportunity for redemption. Democracies assume that ideas count, words matter. Great oratory can change public perceptions, frame debates, and advance the democratic dialogue about what America needs to progress. The President should sketch a more forthright framework, connecting his fight against guns with his fight for health care reform, his economic policy with his immigration policy, his overseas strategy with his climate change crusade. Not every plank on his platform will fit but the effort to make an array of initiatives coherent is worthy.
Back in 2008, even many detractors at least admired Obama’s eloquence, his courageous ability to explain difficult issues like race in ways that raised the level of debate. Today, even many admirers have lost faith in Obama’s rhetorical leadership. This State of the Union provides another opportunity to prove that, as Wilson, Roosevelt, Reagan, and Clinton did, yes, Obama can lead ideologically too.