What tone will President Barack Obama (pictured) set for his sixth year in office when he addresses a joint session of Congress Tuesday in his annual State of the Union address? Did last month’s relatively drama-free deal to avoid another government shutdown inspire an approach that mirrors the big-vision optimism of his early addresses, or will the looming 2014 mid-term elections result in a more combative, partisan tone aimed at helping his party win back the House (such as we saw in 2012)? How will the fumbled launch of the Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges and growing concerns over American income equality figure into his speech? And will he, at last, mention our nation’s persistent racial inequalities — or once again leave that to other occasions?
As we look to the President to tell us how our nation is doing and what he proposes to lead it forward, it’s worth investigating what he has told us in past years — and how those words have held up. Reading the speeches reminds one that first and foremost, this is an address to Congress — and their cooperation is required to make good on many of the goals the President sets.
Here, NewsOne selects highlights from each year (see the full transcript of each speech by clicking on the year).
2013: “Let’s Set Party Interests Aside.”
President Obama went into last year’s State of the Union address fresh from winning re-election – and having just faced down a budgetary “fiscal cliff” temporarily. It was the beginning of a year that would see other showdowns in Congress over the nation’s finances, and even a government shutdown over their inability to strike a budget deal. Trying to head off the inevitable, he asked Congress, “Let’s set party interests aside and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future. And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors.”
That appeal fell on deaf ears.
Also notable in last year’s speech was the announcement of a commission to look at a pivotal issue in the 2012 elections that could have been disproportionately problematic for Black people: voter access. Earlier this month that commission issued a report on ways to make voting easier, such as an interstate exchange of voter lists to guard against fraud and expansion of early voting. (PDF)
Notable Quote of 2013:
We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes one of the most fundamental rights of a democracy: the right to vote. When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.
So tonight, I’m announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And it definitely needs improvement. I’m asking two long-time experts in the field — who, by the way, recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign — to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it, and so does our democracy.
2012: “You can call this class warfare all you want.”
The tone of this State of the Union address, which came in a campaign year, had a distinctly “mission accomplished” ring to it. With the killing of Osama bin Laden, the President capitalized on his newfound reputation as a strong military leader, “For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq,” declared President Obama, just moments after beginning. “For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country.”
He also allotted plenty of time to listing the accomplishments of his first term in office: “In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. Together, we’ve agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion. And we’ve put in place new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like [the recession] never happens again.”
And in unusually partisan comments for a State of the Union address, he referred to criticisms by campaign opponents that his desire to end tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans amounted to “class warfare.”
Notable Quote of 2012:
Tax reform should follow the Buffett Rule. If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes. And my Republican friend Tom Coburn is right: Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires. In fact, if you’re earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn’t get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up.… Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.
2011: “We’ll Win The Future.”
With the back of the recession broken – at least technically — and the Affordable Care Act signed into law, President Obama nevertheless had to contend with criticism that he’d wasted too much political capital on health care reform and not enough on getting Americans back to work. He also had to deal with the fallout of the 2010 midterm elections, which had seen Republicans recapture control of the House of Representatives – and ushering in an era of bipartisan gridlock.
The focus of the President’s second state of the union address was a new theme: win the future. Education, STEM, and infrastructure were key components in that vision. About his goals, President Obama said, “We want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology, and engineering and math.”
Notable Quote of 2011:
We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future.
2010: “I Promised I Wouldn’t Just Do What Was Popular.”
When President Obama took the podium for his first official State of the Union address (as the second address of a President’s term is traditionally considered), he did so at a time when the nation was still reeling from the Great Recession (which, in hindsight, had only ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research). The government had undergone a massive – and massively unpopular – taxpayer bailout of banks and the auto industry, one which as of December 2013 had finally turned a profit and by some accounts saved close to 2 million automotive industry jobs, alone. But on January 27, 2010, the President was still on the defensive over his actions to turn around the economy.
Three months ahead of him was the historic signing of the Affordable Care Act, making good on his promise the year before of comprehensive health reform. That night, he repeated a promise that would come back to haunt him: His approach to health care reform “would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan”; we now know it’s not that simple. On the other hand, President Obama acknowledged that night that the First Lady was “creating a national movement to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity and make kids healthier.” The following month, “Let’s Move,” her signature — and highly popular – effort as First Lady, was born.
Notable Quote of 2010:
When I ran for President, I promised I wouldn’t just do what was popular -– I would do what was necessary. And if we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today.
2009: “A Historic Commitment To Comprehensive Health Care Reform.”
Fresh from his historic win of the presidency, but already battling an imploding economy, President Obama laid out a vision focused on getting the American economic engine healthy again.
The centerpiece of his vision was “a historic commitment to comprehensive health care reform,” buttressed by the goal to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 and a push to double the nation’s supply of renewable energy over the subsequent three years.
Healthcare reform became law the following year, and in his 2013 address, the President said the nation had doubled “the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar.” However, as of 2012, the nation ranked 16th in the world in its proportion of college graduates.
He also said he had “ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay” in Cuba, the naval base where suspects in the War on Terror have been held since the aftermath of 9/11. However, Guantanamo Bay still houses detainees to this day, and the President’s attempt to find an alternative location on American soil was blocked by Congress.
Notable Quote of 2009:
We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again. That is why, even as it cuts back on programs we don’t need, the budget I submit will invest in the three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future: energy, health care, and education.
The 2014 State of the Union address begins Tuesday, January 28, at 9 p.m. EST.