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:
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.