They stormed the White House after a heated election. They got through their first primaries without shedding too much congressional blood, despite public concerns about inflation, big-city crime and conflict with Moscow. Now, as they prepared to deliver their first State of the Union (SOTU) addresses after the midterms, both dreamed of keeping the most powerful job in the world for another six years.
None of those dreams would come true.
John F. Kennedy in 1963, Richard Nixon in 1971 and Jimmy Carter in 1979 are the best candidates for where President Joe Biden is in 2023, as he prepares to deliver another speech before a joint session of Congress, reportedly with an eye toward a second term bid. Their presidency ended in a series of murders, resignations and electoral defeats.
We can’t say where Biden’s political fate lies, although the preliminary numbers are brutal even among Democrats. But we can predict based on the SOTUs of his predecessors and the president’s far-too-long tenure as speaker that tonight will be filled with premature economic bragging, test balloon shots destined for trash cans, and lofty rhetoric almost comically out of touch with our dirty political realities.
Viewing the SOTU speech through a historical lens is a good way to cut through the pomposity in advance, remind ourselves of the impotence of power, and surface some historical echoes relevant to contemporary issues. It’s a way to mark the passage of time and maybe even envision a few libertarian roads you haven’t taken. Regardless of what you hear tonight, February 2023 is not a turning point in the American story, although it may offer a hint of how Biden’s half-century political career will finally come to an end.
Here’s a curated look at the State of the Union addresses from Biden’s most analogous predecessors:
SOLD OUT: John F. Kennedy, January 14, 1963
Midterm results for the president’s political party: -4 in the House of Representatives, +4 in the Senate. (Democrats had a currently unfathomable 36 seats in the Senate, +82 in the House of Representatives.
The main topic of the speech: Tax reduction! “One step above all else is essential–passing this year a substantial reduction and revision of federal income taxes. . . . We cannot afford to be timid or slow. For this is the most urgent task facing Congress in 1963.”
Milestone: “I congratulate you all—not only on your electoral victory but also on your chosen role in history. For you and I are privileged to serve the great Republic in what may be the most decisive decade in its long history. The choices we make, good or bad , can shape the state of the union for generations yet to come.”
Inflation at that time: Only 1.2 percent. And yet: “[There are] growing pressures for such restrictive measures as the 35-hour work week, which alone could raise hourly labor costs by as much as 14 percent, start a new spiral of wage-price inflation and undermine our efforts to compete with other nations.”
You are better than two years ago: “At home, the recession is behind us. More than a million men and women are working today than were working two years ago. The average factory week is again longer than 40 hours; our industries are producing more goods than ever before; and more than half of the production capacity that was quiet and wasted 100 weeks ago is buzzing with activity.”
An early victory lap: “A solution has been reached in Laos, though still uncertain. The height of aggression has been blunted in Vietnam. The end of the agony may be in sight in the Congo.”
Russians: “I would advise caution. I do not foresee a spectacular reversal in Communist methods or goals. But if all these trends and developments can convince the Soviet Union to take the path of peace, then let it know that all free nations will travel with it. But until that choice is made do, and until the world can develop a reliable system of international security, free nations have no choice but to keep their weapons close.”
A closet libertarian: “It is clear that the forces of diversity are at work within the communist camp, despite all the iron disciplines of the regime and all the iron dogmatisms of the ideology. Marx has been proven wrong once again: because it is closed communist societies, not free and open societies that carry the seeds within them internal disintegration… As the older colonialism recedes and the neo-colonialism of the communist powers stands out more sharply than ever, they understand more clearly that the issue of the world struggle is not communism versus capitalism, but coercion versus free choice.”
SOLD OUT: Richard Nixon, January 22, 1971
Midterm results for the president’s political party: -12 in the House of Representatives, +1 in the Senate (Dems still dominate; +10 in the Senate, +75 in the House of Representatives).
The main topic of the speech: Transfer of federal authority to state and local governments.
Milestone: “This 92nd Congress has the opportunity to go down as the greatest Congress in American history. . . . As we consider these reforms, we will be acting, not for the next two years or the next 10 years, but for the next 100 years.”
Inflation at that time: 5.3 percent. “The tide of inflation has turned. The rise in the cost of living, which gained dangerous momentum in the late 60s, eased last year. Inflation will ease further this year.” Indeed, inflation continued to fall, down to 2.7 percent in June 1972… then back to 5.5 percent in May 1973, and 10.9 percent by the time Nixon resigned.
You are better than two years ago: “The level of unemployment in this transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy is lower than in any peacetime year of the 60s.”
An early victory lap: “In these difficult years just past, America has been going through a long nightmare of war and division, crime and inflation. Even deeper, we have been going through a long, dark night of the American spirit. But now that night is ending. Now we must let our the spirit rises again. Now we are ready for the dream ride.”
The ghost of Biden’s past: “I will also ask for an additional $100 million to start an intensive campaign to find a cure for cancer, and later I will ask for any additional funds that can be effectively used. The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took putting a man on the moon must be turned toward conquering this terrible disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieving this goal.”
Closet libertarian: “Let’s face it. Most Americans today are simply fed up with government at all levels. They will not—and should not—continue to tolerate a gap between promise and performance in government. . . . The further the government is from the people, the stronger the government becomes and the people grow weaker and weaker. And a nation with a strong government and weak people is an empty shell…A hundred years ago, Abraham Lincoln stood on the battlefield and spoke of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ Too often since then we have become a nation of government, by government, for government.”
SOLD OUT: Jimmy Carter, January 23, 1979
Midterm results for the president’s political party: -15 in the House, -3 in the Senate (Dems were +17 in the Senate, +120 in the House).
The main topic of the speech: “new foundation.”
Milestone: “The new foundation I have discussed tonight can help us build a nation and a world where every child is nurtured and can look to the future with hope, where the resources now wasted on war can be turned to meeting human needs, where all people they have enough food, a decent home and protection from disease.”
Inflation: 9.3 percent. “It is a myth in our economy that we have to endlessly choose between inflation and recession. Together we are building the foundations for a strong economy, with lower inflation, without inventing a recession with its high unemployment or unenforceable, mandatory government controls.” Twelve months later the economy went into recession, and inflation was 13.9 percent.
You are better than two years ago: “Our economy offers greater prosperity to more of our people than ever before. Real per capita income and real business profits have grown significantly over the past two years. Agricultural exports set an all-time record each year, and farm incomes last year, net income farms, grew by more than 25 percent….Together, we have already begun to build a foundation of confidence in our economic system. Over the past two years, in leading our economy out of the deepest recession since the 1930s, we have created 7,100,000 new jobs.The rate unemployment fell by 25 percent.”
An early victory lap: “We have no desire to be the world’s policeman. But America wants to be the world’s peacemaker. We are building the foundations for true global cooperation, not only with Western and industrialized nations, but also with developing countries.”
Russians: “The new basis of international cooperation we seek excludes no nation. Cooperation with the Soviet Union serves the cause of peace, because in this nuclear age world peace must include peace between the superpowers—and it must mean control of nuclear weapons.”
The ghost of Biden’s past: “This year we will take the first steps in developing a national health plan.”
A closet libertarian: “We must begin to scrutinize the overall impact of regulation on our economy. By deregulating the airline industry, we have increased profits, lowered prices for all Americans, and begun — for one of the few times in our nation’s history — to actually dismantle a major federal bureaucracy. This year, we must begin with efforts to reform our regulatory processes for the rail, bus and trucking industries…America has the greatest economic system in the world.Let’s reduce government interference and provide opportunities for work….We must play the sun [sunset] a law according to which government programs, when they outlive their value, will be automatically terminated.”