President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night is being called an opportunity for him to "pivot" to the center and embrace bipartisan causes like tax reform and deficit reduction. One pundit said the address "may turn out to be the most important speech of his presidency," because it offers a chance for Obama to build on the momentum he got from several successes during the lame-duck session of Congress. But Obama is about to go where many, many TV-era presidents have gone before. Will this talk be any different than the ones of years past?
If it is, almost no one will be seeing it, anyway, Newsweek's David A. Graham writes. Few people tune in unless the president is mired in scandal or war. The most-watched State of the Union of all was Bill Clinton's in 1993, followed by George W. Bush's ten years later, on the eve of the Iraq war. Graham asks, Can you name any lines from recent speeches? Some might remember Bush's "Axis of Evil," from 2002. But, "Bush’s line isn’t famous because so many people watched the original speech. It’s famous because it set the stage for the war in Iraq and became emblematic of his foreign-policy approach." Likewise, Graham writes," Clinton's declaration in 1996 that "the era of big government is over," forecasted his triangulation with reforming welfare and balancing the budget. The line is memorable only in retrospect. "Without ensuing events, it’s just another speech."
Nevertheless, the ensuing events are what makes browsing through State of the Union speeches of yore so interesting. From LBJ's insistence in 1966 that the U.S. wouldn't quit Vietnam--which ultimately meant another nine years of war--to Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst--which kicked off a bitterly partisan session of Congress--these speeches offer quaint little warning signs of all the stuff yet to come. Behold, the ghosts of SOTUs past.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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