12 Presidents’ Big State of the Union Ideas on Economy

From FDR to the second Bush, a look at what presidents had to say in their annual message to Congress

Bill Clinton's State of the Union in 1997. See what he said in 1994. (Photo: AP) Bill Clinton's State of the Union in 1997. See what he said in 1994. (Photo: AP)

Many of us watched the spectacle on Tuesday night that occurs every year: the nation’s chief executive giving his State of the Union address before the congressmen and senators on their turf. President Barack Obama's speech had some big themes in it, but many of them were DOA, according to Republicans after the address.

The term “State of the Union” is enshrined in the Constitution but only states that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

The yearly ritual began with George Washington on Jan. 8, 1790, with a seven-page address, although for decades from Thomas Jefferson onward the speech was delivered in written form and read to Congress by a clerk.

These days, it would be shocking for a president to omit mention of the economy in his address. Whether in boom times or bust, it’s a topic voters seem eager to hear about. Remarkably, George Washington did not mention the economy even one time in the eight State of the Union messages he gave before Congress.

We looked back at the dozen presidents before Barack Obama, who on Tuesday night offered his own prescription to boost the economy, to see what they had to say about the economy. The first of those was Franklin Roosevelt who had the Great Depression to deal with. Before him, Herbert Hoover dismissed the severity of the October stock crash in his December 1929 address, asserting that the Federal Reserve had contained the problem. (The State of Union was then delivered at the start of the new Congress, which used to be in December).

Here is our look at 12 Presidents’ Big Economic Ideas in State of the Union:

FDR in 1936. (Photo: AP)1934: Franklin Roosevelt

“Civilization Cannot Go Back”

FDR was swept into office in 1932 after the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent dawn of the Great Depression. He responded with a litany of alphabet soup agencies, like the NRA and the CCC, to get Americans back to work in a New Deal. In his first State of the Union address in 1934, FDR congratulated Congress for its work in passing a blizzard of legislations aimed at pulling the economy out of its tailspin. And he talked of the hard work ahead, using the eloquence he was know for:

“I come before you at the opening of the Regular Session of the 73rd Congress, not to make requests for special or detailed items of legislation; I come, rather, to counsel with you, who, like myself, have been selected to carry out a mandate of the whole people, in order that without partisanship you and I may cooperate to continue the restoration of our national wellbeing and, equally important, to build on the ruins of the past a new structure designed better to meet the present problems of modern civilization.

Such a structure includes not only the relations of industry and agriculture and finance to each other but also the effect which all of these three have on our individual citizens and on the whole people as a Nation.

Now that we are definitely in the process of recovery, lines have been rightly drawn between those to whom this recovery means a return to old methods—and the number of these people is small—and those for whom recovery means a reform of many old methods, a permanent readjustment of many of our ways of thinking and therefore of many of our social and economic arrangements.

Civilization cannot go back; civilization must not stand still. We have undertaken new methods. It is our task to perfect, to improve, to alter when necessary, but in all cases to go forward. To consolidate what we are doing, to make our economic and social structure capable of dealing with modern life is the joint task of the legislative, the judicial, and the executive branches of the national Government.”

Harry Truman delivering State of the Union in 1951. (Photo: AP)1948: Harry Truman

Stamping Out Poverty in Our Generation

Truman’s stature has grown in recent years. Coming into office as World War II was in its final months, Truman was leading a very different country from the one FDR spoke of just a decade earlier. The production needs of the war had ended the Depression once and for all and the country was in the midst of a postwar boom. Truman wanted prosperity to last and offered this roadmap:

“The amazing economic progress of the past 10 years points the way for the next 10.

Today 14 million more people have jobs than in 1938.

Our yearly output of goods and services has increased by two-thirds.

The average income of our people, measured in dollars of equal purchasing power, has increased-after taxes-by more than 50 percent.

In no other 10 years have farmers, businessmen, and wage earners made such great gains. We may not be able to expand as rapidly in the next decade as in the last, because we are now starting from full employment and very high production. But we can increase our annual output by at least one-third above the present level. We can lift our standard of living to nearly double what it was 10 years ago.

If we distribute these gains properly, we can go far toward stamping out poverty in our generation.”

To do this, agriculture, business, and labor must move forward together.”

Dwight Eisenhower delivering State of the Union in 1958, with Vice President Richard Nixon (left) listening.1953: Dwight Eisenhower

Reduce the Planned Deficits and Then Balance the Budget

The supreme allied commander who spearheaded the victory over the Axis just a few years before was now the leader of the world’s newest superpower. Besides the menace of the Soviet Union and communism, “Ike” had a prescription for the economy as well:

“Our immediate task is to chart a fiscal and economic policy that can:

(1) Reduce the planned deficits and then balance the budget, which means, among other things, reducing Federal expenditures to the safe minimum;

(2) Meet the huge costs of our defense;

(3) Properly handle the burden of our inheritance of debt and obligations;

(4) Check the menace of inflation;

(5) Work toward the earliest possible reduction of the tax burden;

(6) Make constructive plans to encourage the initiative of our citizens.”

JFK delivering State of the Union in 1963, with Vice President Lyndon Johnson (left) listening. (Photo: AP)1961: John F. Kennedy

“We Are Gratified–but We Are Not Satisfied”

The ’60s dawned and U.S. voters, by a slim margin, were ready for a new kind of leader, one who projected youth and vigor. The country was optimistic but was leaving a recession when JFK stepped before Congress in 1962. The economy was the first thing he addressed and like in his inaugural speech (“ask not what your country can do for you …”), he advocated a can-do, do-it-yourself approach:

“That task must begin at home. For if we cannot fulfill our own ideals here, we cannot expect others to accept them. And when the youngest child alive today has grown to the cares of manhood, our position in the world will be determined first of all by what provisions we make today–for his education, his health, and his opportunities for a good home and a good job and a good life.

At home, we began the year in the valley of recession–we completed it on the high road of recovery and growth. With the help of new congressionally approved or administratively increased stimulants to our economy, ... nonagricultural employment has increased by more than a million jobs; and the average factory work-week has risen to well over 40 hours. At year's end the economy which Mr. Khrushchev once called a "stumbling horse" was racing to new records in consumer spending, labor income, and industrial production.

We are gratified–but we are not satisfied. Too many unemployed are still looking for the blessings of prosperity. As those who leave our schools and farms demand new jobs, automation takes old jobs away. To expand our growth and job opportunities, I urge on the Congress three measures:

(1) First, the Manpower Training and Development Act, to stop the waste of able-bodied men and women who want to work, but whose only skill has been replaced by a machine, or moved with a mill, or shut down with a mine;

(2) Second, the Youth Employment Opportunities Act, to help train and place not only the one million young Americans who are both out of school and out of work, but the twenty-six million young Americans entering the labor market in this decade; and

(3) Third, the 8 percent tax credit for investment in machinery and equipment, which, combined with planned revisions of depreciation allowances, will spur our modernization, our growth, and our ability to compete abroad.”

LBJ delivering the State of the Union in 1964.1964: Lyndon Johnson

“Unconditional War on Poverty”

LBJ’s legacy will forever be weighed down by the albatross of Vietnam, but his presidency, like the man, was complex. Taking over after the assassination of JFK, Johnson launched his War on Poverty less than two months after assuming the highest office in the land. He knew winning the war would not be easy:

“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of theft color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the state and the local level and must be supported and directed by state and local efforts.

For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

The program I shall propose will emphasize this cooperative approach to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.”

Rihard Nixon's last State of the Union address in 1974. (photo: AP)1973: Richard Nixon

“Our Objectives Will Be to Hold Down Taxes”

The economy was chugging along in 1973 and Watergate was just a building in Washington, D.C. When Nixon gave his 1973 address, who knew the words would sound familiar to this day:

“In the field of economic affairs, our objectives will be to hold down taxes, to continue controlling inflation, to promote economic growth, to increase productivity, to encourage foreign trade, to keep farm income high, to bolster small business, and to promote better labor-management relations:

In the area of natural resources, my recommendations will include programs to preserve and enhance the environment, to advance science and technology, and to assure balanced use of our irreplaceable natural resources.

In developing human resources, I will have recommendations to advance the Nation's health and education, to improve conditions of people in need, to carry forward our increasingly successful attacks on crime, drug abuse and injustice, and to deal with such important areas of special concern as consumer affairs. We will continue and improve our Nation's efforts to assist those who have served in the Armed Services in Vietnam through better job and training opportunities.

We must do a better job in community development--in creating more livable communities, in which all of our children can grow up with fuller access to opportunity and greater immunity to the social evils and blights which now plague so many of our towns and cities. I shall have proposals to help us achieve this.”

Geral Ford's State of Union address in 1975.1975: Gerald Ford

“The State of the Union Is Not Good”

Ford, of course, was thrust into the Oval Office by Nixon’s resignation. Just two years after Nixon had boasted of a strong economy, Ford was blunt in his assessment of a country facing problems and of a Congress that had failed to act. Later, he was lampooned for his WIN buttons, which urged the country to Whip Inflation Now.

“I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow.

This year's Federal deficit will be about $30 billion; next year's probably $45 billion. The national debt will rise to over $500 billion. Our plant capacity and productivity are not increasing fast enough. We depend on others for essential energy.”

Some people question their Government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual.…

Now, I want to speak very bluntly ... the American people want action, and it will take both the Congress and the President to give them what they want. Progress and solutions can be achieved, and they will be achieved.”

Jimmy Carter's State of the Union address in 1980, with Vice President Walter Mondale (left) listening.1980: Jimmy Carter

“Economic Shocks Unprecedented in Peacetime”

In the end, Carter’s presidency would be dominated by foreign policy, specifically the taking of hostages in Iran. But the economy also went into recession. Carter’s State of the Union did not focus much on this aspect of his administration, mostly offering broad statements about the need to strengthen the foundation of the economy. In his final message, delivered in written form to Congress in 1981 shortly before he left office, Carter had this to say:

“During the last decade our Nation has withstood a series of economic shocks unprecedented in peacetime. The most dramatic of these has been the explosive increases of OPEC oil prices. But we have also faced world commodity shortages, natural disasters, agricultural shortages and major challenges to world peace and security. Our ability to deal with these shocks has been impaired because of a decrease in the growth of productivity and the persistence of underlying inflationary forces built up over the past 15 years.…

We are now in the early stages of economic recovery following a short recession. Typically, a post-recessionary period has been marked by vigorous economic growth aided by anti-recessionary policy measures such as large tax cuts or big, stimulation spending programs. I have declined to recommend such actions to stimulate economic activity, because the persistent inflationary pressures that beset our economy today dictate a restrained fiscal policy.

Accordingly, I am asking the Congress to postpone until January 1, 1982, the personal tax reductions I had earlier proposed to take effect on January 1 of this year.”

Ronald Reagan delivering the State of the Union in 1982. (Photo: AP)1982: Ronald Reagan

“This Time, Things Are Different”

Reagan’s first true State of the Union address wasn’t until 1982 (an outgoing president has the honor of delivering one before the inauguration of a new leader). Staying true to the boastful confidence that won him many votes, Reagan painted a rosy picture of his first year and the future:

“This time, however, things are different. We have an economic program in place, completely different from the artificial quick fixes of the past. It calls for a reduction of the rate of increase in government spending, and already that rate has been cut nearly in half. But reduced spending the first and smallest phase of a 3-year tax rate reduction designed to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Already interest rates are down to 15 3/4 percent, but they must still go lower. Inflation is down from 12.4 percent to 8.9, and for the month of December it was running at an annualized rate of 5.2 percent. If we had not acted as we did, things would be far worse for all Americans than they are today. Inflation, taxes, and interest rates would all be higher.…

“The economy will face difficult moments in the months ahead. But the program for economic recovery that is in place will pull the economy out of its slump and put us on the road to prosperity and stable growth by the latter half of this year. And that is why I can report to you tonight that in the near future the state of the Union and the economy will be better—much better—if we summon the strength to continue on the course that we've charted.”

George H.W. Bush's State of the Union address in 1992.1992: George H.W. Bush

“This Will Not Stand”

Bush was famously defeated by the Clintonian mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid.” But Bush wasn’t unaware of the problems plaguing American workers and businesses:

“And now to our troubles at home. They're not all economic; the primary problem is our economy. There are some good signs. Inflation, that thief, is down. And interest rates are down. But unemployment is too high, some industries are in trouble, and growth is not what it should be. Let me tell you right from the start and right from the heart, I know we're in hard times. But I know something else: This will not stand.

In this Chamber, in this Chamber we can bring the same courage and sense of common purpose to the economy that we brought to Desert Storm. And we can defeat hard times together. I believe you'll help. One reason is that you're patriots, and you want the best for your country. And I believe that in your hearts you want to put partisanship aside and get the job done because it's the right thing to do.

The power of America rests in a stirring but simple idea, that people will do great things if only you set them free. Well, we're going to set the economy free. For if this age of miracles and wonders has taught us anything, it's that if we can change the world we can change America. We must encourage investment. We must make it easier for people to invest money and create new products, new industries, and new jobs. We must clear away the obstacles to growth: high taxes, high regulation, redtape, and yes, wasteful Government spending.

None of this will happen with a snap of the fingers, but it will happen. And the test of a plan isn't whether it's called new or dazzling. The American people aren't impressed by gimmicks; they're smarter on this score than all of us in this room. The only test of a plan is: Is it sound, and will it work?”

Bill Clinton's State of the Union address in 1994.1994: Bill Clinton

“I Want to Thank Every One of You Here”

When Clinton ran for the presidency, he promised a break from the Reagan inspired trickle down theory that had dominated Washington policy for a dozen years. His first State of the Union address expounded on his work to implement a new policy:

“For 30 years, family life in America has been breaking down. For 20 years, the wages of working people have been stagnant or declining. For the 12 years of trickle-down economics, we built a false prosperity on a hollow base as our national debt quadrupled. From 1989 to 1992, we experienced the slowest growth in a half century. For too many families, even when both parents were working, the American dream has been slipping away.

In 1992, the American people demanded that we change. A year ago I asked all of you to join me in accepting responsibility for the future of our country. Well, we did. We replaced drift and deadlock with renewal and reform. And I want to thank every one of you here who heard the American people, who broke gridlock, who gave them the most successful teamwork between a President and a Congress in 30 years.

This Congress produced a budget that cut the deficit by half a trillion dollars, cut spending, and raised income taxes on only the wealthiest Americans. This Congress produced tax relief for millions of low-income workers to reward work over welfare….

These accomplishments were all commitments I made when I sought this office. And in fairness, they all had to be passed by you in this Congress. But I am persuaded that the real credit belongs to the people who sent us here, who pay our salaries, who hold our feet to the fire.”

George W. Bush delivers State of the Union in 2008. (Photo: AP)2008: George W. Bush

“Our Economy Is Undergoing a Period of Uncertainty”

To a large extent, presidents have to play the hand that is dealt them. Bush’s presidency was changed dramatically by the Sept. 11 attacks. The economy, of course, was sailing along, buoyed by the housing bubble that too many thought would never burst. Burst it did, just at the end of Bush’s final year in office. Despite the boom years, Bush did see some trouble ahead, albeit only for the short term, when he gave his last State of the Union address:

“To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy. As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty. America has added jobs for a record 52 straight months, but jobs are now growing at a slower pace. Wages are up, but so are prices for food and gas. Exports are rising, but the housing market has declined. At kitchen tables across our country, there is a concern about our economic future.

In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth. But in the short run, we can all see that that growth is slowing. So last week, my administration reached agreement with Speaker Pelosi and Republican Leader Boehner on a robust growth package that includes tax relief for individuals and families and incentives for business investment. The temptation will be to load up the bill. That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable. This is a good agreement that will keep our economy growing and our people working, and this Congress must pass it as soon as possible.

We have other work to do on taxes. Unless Congress acts, most of the tax relief we've delivered over the past 7 years will be taken away. Some in Washington argue that letting tax relief expire is not a tax increase. Try explaining that to 116 million American taxpayers who would see their taxes rise by an average of $1,800. Others have said they would personally be happy to pay higher taxes. I welcome their enthusiasm. I'm pleased to report that the IRS accepts both checks and money orders. [Laughter]”

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