After contesting the election, they entered the White House. They got through their first midterms without much congressional bloodshed, despite public concerns over inflation, big-city crime and conflict with Moscow. Now, as they prepare to deliver their first post-midterm State of the Union (SOTU) addresses, everyone dreams of holding the world’s most powerful job for another six years.
None of those dreams will come true.
John F. Kennedy in 1963, Richard Nixon in 1971 and Jimmy Carter in 1979 best compose for where President Joe Biden is in 2023, as he prepares to deliver another speech before a joint session of Congress, reportedly with eyes on running for a second term. . Their presidencies ended in assassinations, resignations, and electoral defeats, respectively.
We can’t tell where Biden’s political fortunes lie, though the primary poll numbers are brutal even among Democrats. But we can predict, based on his predecessors’ SOTUs and the president’s ultra-long rhetorical track record, that the night will be filled with premature economic bragging, trial-balloon moon shots destined for the dustbin, and almost comically incoherent aspirational speeches. Our dirty political reality.
Viewing SOTU speechcraft through a historical lens is a good way of pre-puncturing pomposity, reminding ourselves of the fragility of power, and picking up some historical echoes relevant to contemporary issues. It’s a way to trace back over time and maybe imagine a few libertarian roads not taken. Regardless of what you hear tonight, February 2023 is not the turning point in the American story, although it may offer some indication of how Biden’s half-century political career will ultimately play out.
Here’s a curated look at State of the Union addresses by Biden’s most similar predecessors:
sale: John F. Kennedy, January 14, 1963
Results between presidential political parties:-4 in House, +4 in Senate. (Democrats currently had an incredible 36-seat advantage in the Senate, +82 in the House.
Main theme of speech: discount! “One step, above all, is essential–the enactment of a substantial reduction and revision of the federal income tax this year. . . . We cannot be timid or slow. This is the most urgent task facing Congress in 1963.”
deadline: “I congratulate you all—not just for your electoral victory, but for your chosen role in history. You and I have been privileged to serve in what may be the most defining decade in the long history of a great republic. The choices we make, for better or for worse. For, may well shape the state of the Union for future generations.”
Inflation at that time: Only 1.2 percent. And yet: “[There are] Growing pressure for restrictive measures like the 35-hour week, which alone could raise hourly labor costs by 14 percent, could start a new wage-price spiral of inflation and undermine our efforts to compete with other countries.”
You are better than you were two years ago: “At home, the recession is behind us. A million more men and women are at work today than two years ago. The average factory work week is again over 40 hours; our industries are turning out more goods than ever before; and 100 weeks ago are silent and wasteful.” More than half of the existing manufacturing capacity is humming with activity.”
In the lap of premature victory: “A settlement, though still uncertain, is reached in Laos. The spear point of aggression is blunted in Vietnam. Suffering may end in the Congo.”
english: “I would advise caution. I do not foresee any spectacular change in Communist methods or goals. But if all these trends and developments can persuade the Soviet Union to walk the path of peace, let it know that all independent nations will walk with it. But Until that choice is made, and until the world can build a reliable system of international security, free peoples have no choice but to lay down their arms.”
Closet libertarians: “It is clear that the forces of diversity are at work within the Communist camp, despite all the iron discipline of regimentation and all the iron dogmatism of ideology. Marx is proved wrong again: for it is the closed communist society, not the free and open society that carries within itself the seeds of internal disunity.. ..As the old colonialism declines, and the neocolonialism of the communist powers stands out more clearly than ever, they realize more clearly that the issue in the world struggle is not communism vs. capitalism, but coercion vs. free choice.”
sale: Richard Nixon, January 22, 1971
Results between presidential political parties: -12 in House, +1 in Senate (Dems still dominate; +10 in Senate, +75 in House).
Main theme of speech: Devolution of federal powers to state and local governments.
deadline: “This 92nd Congress has a chance to go down as the greatest Congress in American history… As we consider these reforms, we will be working not for the next two years or the next 10 years, but for the next 100 years.”
Inflation at that time: 5.3 percent. “The tide of inflation has turned. Cost-of-living growth, which was gathering dangerous speed in the late 60s, slowed last year. Inflation will ease further this year.” Inflation actually continued to fall to 2.7 percent in June 1972… then rebounded to 5.5 percent in May 1973 and 10.9 percent by the time Nixon left office.
You are better than you were two years ago: “Unemployment levels in this transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy are lower than in any peacetime year of the 1960s.”
In the lap of premature victory: “During these turbulent years of yesterday, America has been living through a long nightmare of war and division, crime and inflation. More profoundly, we have been living through a long, dark night of the American spirit. But now that night is over. Now we must raise our spirits again. Will be. Now we’re ready for a driving dream.”
Ghosts of Biden’s Past: “I will also ask for the appropriation of an additional $100 million to begin an intensive campaign to cure cancer, and I will ask for whatever additional funds may be usefully used hereafter. The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that splits the atom and The focus should be on defeating the dreaded disease that took man to the moon. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.”
Closet Libertarian: “Let’s face it. Most Americans today are fed up with government at all levels. They can’t tolerate—and they shouldn’t—the gap between commitment and performance in government. . . . The farther away government is from the people, the stronger it becomes. Govt. Be and become the weak people. And a nation of a strong government and a weak people is an empty shell… One hundred years ago, Abraham Lincoln stood on a battlefield and spoke of a ‘government of the people, by the people. For the people.’ Too often since then, we have become a nation of government, by government, for government.”
sale: Jimmy Carter, January 23, 1979
Results between presidential political parties: -15 in the House, -3 in the Senate (Dems were +17 in the Senate, +120 in the House).
Main theme of speech: a “new foundation.”
deadline: “The new foundation I discuss tonight can help us build a nation and a world where every child is raised and can look to a future with hope, where the resources now wasted on war are people’s can be turned towards meeting needs, where all people have adequate food, a decent home and protection against disease.”
Inflation: 9.3 percent. “In our economy, it is a myth that we must endlessly choose between inflation and recession. Together, we build the foundation of a strong economy, with low inflation, without causing recession with its high unemployment or ineffective, mandatory government regulation.” Twelve. Months later, the economy entered recession and inflation stood at 13.9 percent.
You are better than you were two years ago: “Our economy offers greater prosperity to more of our people than ever before. Real per capita income and real business profits have risen significantly over the past two years. Farm exports are setting all-time records every year and farm incomes are over. During the year, net farm income, 25 percent increased….Together, we have already begun to build a foundation of confidence in our economic system. In the past two years, we have created 7,100,000 new jobs, lifting our economy out of the deepest recession since the 1930s. The unemployment rate is 25 The percentage has dropped.”
In the lap of premature victory: “We have no desire to be the world’s policeman. But America wants to be the world’s peacekeeper. We are building the basis for true global cooperation not only with Western and industrialized countries, but also with developing countries.”
english: “The new basis of international cooperation that we seek excludes no nation. Cooperation with the Soviet Union serves as a cause of peace, because in this nuclear age, world peace must include peace among the superpowers—and that must mean nuclear arms control.”
Ghosts of Biden’s Past: “This year, we will take our first steps to create a national health plan.”
Closet libertarians: “We must begin to examine the overall impact of regulation on our economy. By deregulating the airline industry, we have increased profits, lowered prices for all Americans, and begun—for the few times in our nation’s history—to actually dismantle a major federal bureaucracy. This year, We must begin efforts to reform our regulatory processes for the railroad, bus, and trucking industries…America has the largest economic system in the world. Let’s reduce government interference. An opportunity to work…We must create a sunlight. [sunset] Laws that when government programs outgrow their value, they will automatically cease.”