President Obama has to make a choice in his State of the Union address. When he strides to the Speaker's Rostrum on Tuesday night and, for the first time in his presidency, faces a Congress under the complete control of his opponents, he must choose either defiance and denial or compromise and conciliation. And the country watching will know within minutes what tone he wants to set.
In the 10 weeks since the election, that tone has been much more "in your face" than conciliatory, starting with Obama's press conference the day after the election gave Senate control to Republicans and swept Democrats out of office in state legislatures, state constitutional offices, and governorships across the country. He did concede, rather grudgingly, that Republicans "had a good night." But he contended that it was his duty not just to listen to the millions of Americans who had voted. Obama said he also planned to heed the message of nonvoters: "To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too."
The president's actions since suggest that what he heard from them was that it was time to double down on his previous policies regardless of the unified opposition by the Republican Congress. That meant, in part, stoutly defending his aggressive use of executive orders against a relentless GOP assault. But the State of the Union address gives him a unique platform to send a high-profile message to the country and to Republicans about how he is adjusting to the new political environment in Washington.
His dilemma is one that confronted every president of the past 100 years. All of them lost seats in midterm elections. Fourteen of the 16 presidents between Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush had to come to Congress in the wake of stinging setbacks for their parties that left their opponents with more leverage. Like Obama today, two others—Wilson in 1918 and Ronald Reagan in 1986—lost at least one chamber of Congress in the midterm election of their second terms. Also like Obama, three—Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, Bill Clinton in 1994, and George W. Bush in 2006—lost at least one chamber in their first terms.
Each had to make the choice now facing Obama: how to treat the newly victorious foes. Wilson was lucky. He was able to completely ignore the Democratic defeats and cloak his speech in patriotic bunting. He celebrated the end of World War I, announced his decision to go to Paris for peace talks, and pledged to the newly Republican House to stay "in close touch with you" from France. "You will know all that I do," he declared.
Twelve years later, Herbert Hoover ducked having to deal with big gains by Democrats in both chambers by refusing to go to Congress to deliver a State of the Union address after the 1930 election. Instead, he used a written report to answer the Constitution's call for him to "from time to time give to Congress Information of the State of the Union." It was probably just as well that in that year of deep Depression he didn't have a live audience to hear him boast that "actual suffering has been kept to a minimum during the past 12 months."
Most of the presidents rose to the occasion, though, and struck exceedingly gracious notes about the newly empowered leaders placed in charge of the legislative branch. George W. Bush was particularly gracious in 2007 when he began his speech with warm praise for Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi. "Tonight," he said, "I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own, as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: 'Madam Speaker.' " He moved Pelosi when he recalled her father, a former House member, being present for past presidents. "But nothing could compare with the sight of his only daughter, Nancy, presiding tonight as the speaker of the House of Representatives."
In 1987, Reagan also singled out the new Senate majority leader, Robert Byrd, and new speaker, Jim Wright, by name. Obama, after suffering the loss of the House in 2010, similarly praised new Speaker John Boehner in his 2011 address, calling him the embodiment of the American Dream. "That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar can preside as speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth," Obama said.
In 1995, Clinton did not use Newt Gingrich's name. But he referred to the new House speaker, offering his congratulations and acknowledging that the voters were angry. "We didn't hear America singing," he said. "We heard America shouting."
In 1955, Eisenhower made no direct mention of the staggering GOP losses in both chambers in the 1954 elections. He dealt with the electoral debacle in his first 36 words: "First, I extend cordial greetings to the 84th Congress. We shall have much to do together; I am sure that we shall get it done—and that we shall do it in harmony and goodwill."
That is a theme oft-repeated by presidents who have lost their way in Congress and one almost certain to run through Obama's address on Tuesday. Reagan simply repeated Eisenhower's remarks, stating, "I cannot find better words." He added, "And now, ladies and gentlemen of the Congress, why don't we get to work?"
Those words were echoed by Clinton in 1995 when, more than once, he implored Congress, "Let's work together on this." Bush, in 2007, hit the same theme. "We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences, and we can achieve big things for the American people," he said. "Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done"
Obama, in 2011, was a little more restrained when talking about crossing the aisle—even though that was the evening when many Democrats and Republicans made a big point of sitting alongside members of the other party. He indicated he was skeptical that he would see "a new era of cooperation" in the divided Congress. "What comes of this moment is up to us," he said. "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."
Sadly, the answer was negative. There wasn't much working together in the coming days. But that reality did not diminish presidents' love for the word "together." In the wake of partisan setbacks and facing freshly hostile Congresses, modern presidents have embraced the word. Four times in Eisenhower's address; four times in Reagan's; 17 times in Clinton's; 10 times in Bush's; and six in Obama's.
Listen—together—for it from Obama again on Tuesday.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.