President Obama’s State of the Union Address this past Tuesday had a distinct feel good theme. He spoke extensively on American economic growth, stating America has surpassed China in investor interest, that large manufacturing companies are going to begin insourcing jobs from abroad, and even appealing to lower classes with a brief critique on the stagnation of upward mobility(1). Many of his promises, such as those looking to fundamentally change the trend of a widening class gap, or his promise to “fix our broken immigration system.(1)” sounded almost like New Years Resolutions, 92% of which fail(3). However positive the address was, it is not unfounded; America’s economy is on the rebound after the 2008 recession, with December 2013 having the lowest unemployment rates since October 2008. (3,4).
Obama’s address was optimistic, and, comparatively to our country’s economic history, we live in an optimistic time. How does Obama’s speech compare to State of the Union Addresses given during economic downturn? Lets start with another by President Obama, given in February of 2009 (the unemployment rate peaked in October 2009(5).) Here, he is obviously more somber, speaking of the hardships faced after his opening statements. When he spoke positively, he spoke of the future.
Quotes from the address
“I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others, and rightly so. If you haven’t been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has: a friend, a neighbor, a member of your family. You don’t need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It’s the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It’s the job you thought you’d retire from but now have lost, the business you built your dreams upon that’s now hanging by a thread, the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope. The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere.”
“But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”
Now let’s jump back to 1974, when rising oil prices and a stock market crash led to a recession of a lesser degree than the most recent one. Nixon’s SOTU address, given January 30, roughly a year before the recession peaked (or troughed, if you will), was relatively positive, citing the fact that America was not involved in any wars, that job creation had hit a 20 year year high, and that consumer quality of life was on the rise. However, it is pertinent to note that the Watergate Scandal had broke and were still a national topic at the time, and this obviously affected how Nixon wrote his address.
Quotes from the address
“Tonight, for the first time in 12 years, a President of the United States can report to the Congress on the state of a Union at peace with every nation of the world.”
“Overall, Americans are living more abundantly than ever before, today. More than 2 1/2 million new jobs were created in the past year alone. That is the biggest percentage increase in nearly 20 years. People are earning more. What they earn buys more, more than ever before in history. In the past 5 years, the average American’s real spendable income–that is, what you really can buy with your income, even after allowing for taxes and inflation–has increased by 16 percent.”
“Mr. Speaker, and Mr. President, and my distinguished colleagues and our guests: I would like to add a personal word with regard to an issue that has been of great concern to all Americans over the past year. I refer, of course, to the investigations of the so-called Watergate affair. As you know, I have provided to the Special Prosecutor voluntarily a great deal of material. I believe that I have provided all the material that he needs to conclude his investigations and to proceed to prosecute the guilty and to clear the innocent.
I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.”
Now, let’s go back to 1937. This recession is forgotten in the shadow of the Great Depression, and is sometimes grouped with the Great Depression as a specific economic downturn in a period of economic strife, as, although America had generally recovered by 1936, the Great Depression was a worldwide recession, and many economies didn’t recover until the 1940’s. However, the recession of 1937 (or economic downturn of 1937, if you perfer) is still one of the most severe recessions of the 20th century, caused by tighter fiscal policy and declining business profits and investments. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then in the first year of his second term, spoke mostly of the necessary reforms to bring the national economy back on track, not dwelling on the economic troubles of the time. He spoke more of the financial crisis of the Great Depression than the then-current recession (which would reach it’s worst a few months after the address), and when he talked about the economy, he spoke mostly of the ways the recovery from the Great Depression could have been extended.
Quotes from the address
“Nor was the recovery we sought merely a purposeless whirring of machinery. It is important, of course, that every man and woman in the country be able to find work, that every factory run, that business and farming as a whole earn profits. But Government in a democratic Nation does not exist solely, or even primarily, for that purpose. It is not enough that the wheels turn. They must carry us in the direction of a greater satisfaction in life for the average man. The deeper purpose of democratic government is to assist as many of its citizens as possible, especially those who need it most, to improve their conditions of life, to retain all personal liberty which does not adversely affect their neighbors, and to pursue the happiness which comes with security and an opportunity for recreation and culture.”
“Even with our present recovery we are far from the goal of that deeper purpose. There are far-reaching problems still with us for which democracy must find solutions if it is to consider itself successful.”
“The recovery we sought was not to be merely temporary. It was to be a recovery protected from the causes of previous disasters. With that aim in view—to prevent a future similar crisis-you and I joined in a series of enactments—safe banking and sound currency, the guarantee of bank deposits, protection for the investor in securities, the removal of the threat of agricultural surpluses, insistence on collective bargaining, the outlawing of sweat shops, child labor and unfair trade practices, and the beginnings of security for the aged and the worker.”
Finally, let’s look at the SOTU Address given near the peak of the Great Depression (about a year after it’s peak) again by FDR. He speaks briefly about the plans for the future, but focuses on the fact that the worst is behind them, and that they will continue the progress that was made.
Quotes from the address
“Now that we are definitely in the process of recovery…”
“I shall not attempt to set forth either the many phases of the crisis which we experienced last March, or the many measures which you and I undertook during the Special Session that we might initiate recovery and reform. It is sufficient that I should speak in broad terms of the results of our common counsel.”
“The overwhelming majority of the banks, both national and State, which reopened last spring, are in sound condition and have been brought within the protection of Federal insurance.”
“You recognized last spring…”
All these speeches contained general plans for improvement, which is what the State of the Union Address is about, but the plans were always presented in positive, ambitious ways, which makes sense. The President is someone looked up to by the citizens of America, and it’s his job to assure the people that things are going well when they are (as in the 2014 address) or that the government has a plan to improve things when they aren’t (as in the four other addresses.)