President Barack Obama is set to kick off his second term with the State of the Union address tonight, but the question is — will it make history?Sure, it will be historic in the sense that it’s a grand speech from the President of the United States, but there have been some big moments in past State of the Union addresses that Obama will have to live up to earn his place in SOTU history.
Although it was a written report, Abraham Lincoln delivered an enduring message to Congress in the midst of the Civil War, and dedicated a substantial portion to addressing slavery:
'One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended,' Lincoln wrote.
While he addressed other topics throughout, Lincoln returned to this central issue as he closed, paving the way for the Emancipation Proclamation:
'Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honour or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.'
Although delivering a State of the Union to Congress is mandated by the Constitution, it doesn't actually require a speech. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both spoke their State of the Unions, but subsequent presidents delivered a written report to Congress.
It wasn't until Woodrow Wilson gave his address to a joint session of Congress in 1913 that the practice was revived. Every President since Wilson has delivered the State of the Union to Congress in person.
Less than a year before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, precipitating U.S. involvement in World War II, FDR gave one of the most memorable addresses, commonly referred to as his 'Four Freedoms' speech.
The first two freedoms he mentioned were enshrined and protected by the Constitution, but in his last two, the U.S. first saw the scope of progressive thought that would come to shape FDR's presidency:
'In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want--which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants--everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour--anywhere in the world.'
LBJ's 'Great Society' speech in January 1965 laid the groundwork for Democratic social policies in the 1960s, including the War On Poverty.
'The Great Society asks not how much, but how good,' Johnson said. 'not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed.'
With the help of an overwhelming Democrat majority in Congress, a laundry list of programs were enacted after Johnson's speech, including medical insurance for the poor and elderly, extension of the minimum wage, increased funding for education, and voting rights protections.
In a speech given after the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, President Clinton famously proclaimed, 'the era of big government is over,' and began his tack to the political centre.
With Republicans in control of the House, Clinton largely followed through on his rhetoric, signing a major welfare reform bill, and tackling the federal budget deficit.
Just months after the attacks of 9/11, Bush opened his speech by stating that the union was strong:
'...our nation is at war, our economy is in recession and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers,' Bush said. 'Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.'
But the most famous part of the speech was the coining of the term 'Axis of Evil,' a phrase that singled out North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as the states posing the most significant threats to U.S. national security.
'States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.'
The statement went on to influence foreign policy throughout his two terms in office.
In a rather infamous moment in State of the Union history, the President lashed out at members of the Supreme Court, who had delivered the controversial Citizens United decision a week prior:
'With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.'
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was caught on camera muttering and shaking his head in disagreement while the President spoke.
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