If the shutdown obstructionism persists, there may not be a State of the Union address this year. But for those deeply concerned about the direction of the country, five past SOTU speeches can help us understand how we got to extreme dysfunction, give us faith in our resilience, and suggest corrective measures that we must take as Americans to ward off disunion.
In the heat of today's populist climate and looking toward the upcoming 2020 primary, Democrats are battling to undo President Clinton’s 1996 “era of big government is over” colossal concession that traded a New Deal legacy committed to human dignity for the deep entrenchment of triangulation and corporatism. This did not merely set back the cause of progressivism in the 21st century but was a self-inflicted, potentially fatal wound.
The lesson could not be clearer in 2019. When we refuse to see government as genuine public service to help perfect the union, and ensure the fulfillment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans, darkness clouds the republic’s ideals. The slash-and-burn of austerity politics has combusted into Trumpian kakistocracy.
Amid this resurgence of anti-democratic forces, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the new Justice Democrats are challenging Democrats to renew their commitment to the people and the virtue of compassionate public policy.
These Green New Dealers are not only allies with FDR but also LBJ. Lyndon Johnson's 1965 SOTU was an impassioned call for a Great Society to “turn increased attention to the character of American life.”
LBJ’s moral appeal to economic fairness and security is an alternative to the divisive Trump presidency. “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,” Johnson argued. He elaborated on a vision of bold education, health, environmental, infrastructure, and transportation commitments.
Unlike when Johnson promised revitalization with bipartisan backing, a majority of the public does not see Trump making America great or delivering his promise to rebuild crumbling infrastructure. Instead, according to all credible surveys, Americans agree that the state of the union under Trump is neither normal nor good. They hope a statesman (or woman) can pick up the pieces of our democracy and move forward for the good of the nation.
This is what President Ford attempted in his 1975 SOTU speech after Richard Nixon's resignation. Ford promised to reset American “political strength” approaching the nation’s 200th birthday. “When I became President only 5 months ago, I promised the last Congress a policy of communication, conciliation, compromise, and cooperation,” he said. “I renew that pledge to the new Members of this Congress.” A Democrat who embodies human decency—what an old guard of conservatism might have considered fundamental to American preservation—can massively reshape the electoral map in 2020.
Just one year before Ford sought that mollifying tone, President Nixon’s 1974 SOTU stridently declared, “One year of Watergate is enough.” But the investigation continued and is a warning for Trump.
No matter how many times he desperately tweets (or shouts) "No collusion” and “Enemy of the People,” Americans want fair-mindedness and lawfulness, not distraction and deceit. In turning the page from abuse of power, Ford showed us a patriotic way forward, a revival of humility in the White House even if Nixon himself was unaccountable for criminality.
Finally, during the 2010 SOTU nearly a decade ago, President Obama forecast today’s acrimony and fervor. He criticized the Citizens United decision for opening the floodgates of unlimited money in politics. While criticism of the Supreme Court is not common in a joint-session of Congress, it was likewise unprecedented when Justice Alito shook his head and uttered "not true."
Citizens United exacerbated the disconnect between elite and voters, Main Street and Wall Street, and made total lobbyist control of government policy. Cambridge Analytica, Trump Incorporated, and their blatant corruption are all a consequence of that decision.
Democrats must accept their own hard truths too: Clinton's 1996 speech stifled for two decades the imagination of Democratic lawmakers and helped define the present condition of American politics, in which wealth inequality has never been greater, the power of the elite never more concentrated, and economic mobility never so diminished. The Obama recovery brought a Wall Street rebound but not the restoration of a vibrant prosperity for many.
The normalizing of shutdown politics is disturbing enough, and the prospect of a SOTU without a working U.S. government is a betrayal of the nation. Of course, the President is centrally to blame for holding hostage the American people—his obsession with an imaginary crisis at the Mexican border, anti-American immigrant bashing, and refusal to sign legislation to reopen the government without a wall that lacks public support.
But by abdicating the party’s moral compass, Clinton’s 1996 speech surrendered LBJ’s vision of government as a force for good and sowed the seeds of the shutdown games. Together, Johnson and Ford are tests for their respective parties. Johnson’s 1965 State of the Union is a model for how Democrats can transcend coastal tribalism for a progressive revival of the heartland, and advocate collectively for the abandoned countryside, suburbs, and cities. Meanwhile, Ford speaks to how a return to normalcy can unify the nation.
We will likely hear from Trump in one form or another this January but it is the message that is delivered in a 2021 SOTU by a new president that will matter most.