The economy is improving, Obama’s approval rating has seen an uptick (most polls put it at 46 percent, but a Washington Post-ABC poll out Monday puts it at 50 percent), and Americans are feeling more optimistic than they have been. Things could be worse, but they could be better as Obama gets ready to face the most hostile Congress he’s seen. (Even back in 2009 when he was called a liar, he had the backing of both chambers of Congress.)
What does it sound like when the State of the Union is delivered to an unfriendly room? There’s an acknowledgment of the division of power, a plead for some sort of bipartisan road forward and then a vision speech.
Here’s Ronald Reagan in 1987 after the House turned blue in 1986. Reagan faced a 49 percent approval rating at the time.
Now, there’s a new face at this place of honor tonight. And please join me in warm congratulations to the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright. Mr. Speaker, you might recall a similar situation in your very first session of Congress 32 years ago. Then, as now, the speakership had changed hands and another great son of Texas, Sam Rayburn—”Mr. Sam”—sat in your chair. I cannot find better words than those used by President Eisenhower that evening. He said, “We shall have much to do together; I am sure that we will get it done and that we shall do it in harmony and good will.” Tonight I renew that pledge. To you, Mr. Speaker, and to Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, who brings 34 years of distinguished service to the Congress, may I say: Though there are changes in the Congress, America’s interests remain the same. And I am confident that, along with Republican leaders Bob Michel and Bob Dole, this Congress can make history.
In 1991 George H. W. Bush faced a Democratic Congress at a high point in his career. The first Gulf War was coming to a close, and his approval rating was 82 percent. Needless to say, he didn’t need to kowtow, instead calling on the nation to lead the way in the war in Iraq.
Among the nations of the world, only the United States of America has both the moral standing and the means to back it up. We’re the only nation on this Earth that could assemble the forces of peace. This is the burden of leadership and the strength that has made America the beacon of freedom in a searching world.
Here’s Bill Clinton in 1995, facing a Congress still savoring its triumph in the 1994 midterms. Under the leadership of Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America,” the House had flipped Republican for the first time in 40 years. The Republican Congress didn’t keep Clinton from talking; he gave his longest State of the Union address that year at 9190 words.
If we agree on nothing else tonight, we must agree that the American people certainly voted for change in 1992 and in 1994.
And as I look out at you, I know how some of you must have felt in 1992.
I must say that in both years we didn’t hear America singing, we heard America shouting. And now all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, must say: We hear you. We will work together to earn the jobs you have given us. For we are the keepers of the sacred trust and we must be faithful to it in this new and very demanding era.
George W. Bush in 2007 after welcoming Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, congratulates “the Democrat majority.” Bush’s approval rating was at a low 36 percent.
Congress has changed, but not our responsibilities. Each of us is guided by our own convictions, and to these we must stay faithful.
Yet we’re all held to the same standards, and called to serve the same good purposes: to extend this nation’s prosperity; to spend the people’s money wisely; to solve problems, not leave them to future generations; to guard America against all evil; and to keep faith with those we have sent forth to defend us.
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.
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.
Tonight, in the final years of his presidency, Barack Obama will have his turn to acknowledge a shift in Congressional power. The State of the Union is tonight at 6 pm PT / 9 pm ET.