If you’re a betting man or woman, you might want to see if a Vegas casino will let you wager on how many traditions Donald Trump will break Tuesday night when he speaks to a joint session of Congress. Based on six decades’ worth of the first remarks of a new chief executive (they’re not called “State of the Union” speeches), a “normal” address includes:
– a celebration of civic history.
– a pledge of cooperation with a co-equal branch of government and a pledge of deep respect for the separation of powers.
– a focus on domestic matters, especially economic issues, with a surprisingly detailed set of policies the new president intends to propose to the Congress.
– a near-total absence of polarizing rhetoric, even when a new president has run by assailing the policies of his predecessor.
– an embrace of at least some aspects of a liberal sensibility, no matter how much the new president identifies as a conservative.
Those elements have appeared even on those (rare) occasions when a new president has had to speak in a moment of crisis. Think of Lyndon Johnson’s speech five days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 (“all I have, I would have given gladly, not be standing here today”). Think of Gerald Ford’s speech in 1974, four days after Richard Nixon resigned as his “imperial presidency” collapsed (“my motto toward the Congress is communication, conciliation, compromise and cooperation”). Even in such circumstances, you’ll find a quick turn to policy.
LBJ used the shock of Kennedy’s murder to push for progress on civil rights, a project that had been stymied by his fellow Southern Democrats. “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long,” he told Congress, “and no act of ours could more fittingly continue the work of President Kennedy than the early passage of the tax bill for which he fought all this long year.”
Ford seized the opportunity to focus on the soaring prices that threatened to strangle his presidency in its cradle. “My first priority is to work with you to bring inflation under control,” he told Congress. “Inflation is domestic enemy No. 1.”
Those with long memories will remember that the tax cut and a civil rights bill were two of Johnson’s signature successes in 1964; and that Ford’s White House launched a singularly unsuccessful attempt to rally the nation behind a “Whip Inflation Now” campaign in 1974, complete with “WIN” buttons.
And that points to one of the most striking aspects of these introductory remarks: to a large extent, they track what a new president actually seeks to do—for good or ill.
When President Ronald Reagan spoke a month after his 1981 inauguration, he painted a dire picture of an economy wounded by inflation and unemployment, and then offered this remedy: “a 10-percent across the-board cut every year for three years in the tax rates for all individual income taxpayers, making a total cut in the tax-cut rates of 30 percent.” Later that year, Congress gave Reagan the cuts he had asked for. (Though truth be told, it was a second speech that provided key momentum—the one he gave on April 27, almost four weeks after a near-fatal assassination attempt, to a Joint Session overwhelmed with relief that violence had not claimed yet another American political leader.)
When President Bill Clinton made his first formal remarks to Congress a dozen years later, he was equally clear about his very different intention: to extract higher taxes from affluent Americans: “For the wealthiest, those earning more than $180,000 per year, I ask you all who are listening tonight to support a raise in the top rate for federal income taxes from 31 to 36 percent.” Six months later, a solidly Democratic Congress passed Clinton’s proposal—by one-vote margins in each chamber.
For Barack Obama, the circumstances of his first speech could not have been more dire: The nation was sliding perilously close to an economic meltdown. “You don’t need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis,” he said, “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.”
By then, Congress had already passed the American Recovery Act—the $800 billion-plus stimulus that proved politically unpopular even as most economists credited it with averting disaster—but Obama was asking for yet another major intervention in the economy. Faced with a credit crisis, Obama vowed to “act with the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money to lend even in more difficult times … and our goal is to quicken the day when we restart lending to the American people and American business and end this crisis once and for all.”
Obama was fully aware of the political cost of a “bank bailout,” and promised that he wouldn’t tolerate any monkey business. “I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive,” he said, in words that would come back to haunt him later. “This time, CEOs won’t be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.”
In fact, they weren’t—a reality that was one of the sources of a populist resentment that played out eight years later. It also points to one more aspect of these political overtures: They often provide a guide to aspirations mugged by reality.
Much of Clinton’s speech was devoted to health care; he talked of the unsustainable burden both on families and the national economy, and promised, “I will deliver to Congress a comprehensive plan for health care reform that finally will bring costs under control and provide security to all of our families, so that no one will be denied the coverage they need but so that our economic future will not be compromised either.”
The proposal, shaped by his wife, Hillary Clinton, eviscerated by a coalition of interest groups and dramatized by highly effective “Thelma and Louise” ads, died without ever reaching the floor of Congress, and helped cost Democrats both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterms.
George W. Bush’s first speech in early 2001, with massive budget surpluses on the horizon, said: “I hope you will join me to pay down $2 trillion in debt during the next 10 years. At the end of those 10 years, we will have paid down all the debt that is available to retire.” (The Great Recession buried that fond hope.)
Later, in 2005, he also proposed a drastic change in Social Security, permitting younger workers to invest in private accounts. That proposal, which had first been offered as legislation in 1985, crashed and burned on arrival two decades later; Bush’s reelection, it turned out, did not provide him the political capital to fiddle with the core of a widely popular entitlement.
This history only begins to suggest how unlikely it is that President Trump will follow in his predecessors’ footsteps. It’s just not easy to picture Trump plowing through a detailed description of his tax plan or his health care package—to the extent that he has them—much less promising cooperation and compromise to his opponents. Nor do words of deference and compromise come naturally to him; witness his chest-beating performance last week at CPAC, where he spent half of his appearance berating the media as “enemies of the people.”
But now look at the consistent pattern of conservative presidents identifying with “liberal” causes. Reagan, after urging cuts in the growth of government spending in his 1981 speech, promised to safeguard popular Great Society-style programs. “The full retirement benefits of the more than 31 million Social Security recipients will be continued, along with an annual cost-of-living increase,” he said. “Medicare will not be cut, nor will supplemental income for the blind, the aged and the disabled. And funding will continue for veterans’ pensions. School breakfasts and lunches for the children of low-income families will continue, as will nutrition and other special services for the aging. There will be no cut in Project Head Start or summer youth jobs.”
George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s Republican successor, argued for a “new attitude about the environment. We must protect the air we breathe … We must protect our oceans … we must respect the environment.” In remarks that could equally have been made by his vanquished opponent Michael Dukakis, Bush called for postponing “three lease sales which have raised troubling questions, two off the coast of California and one which could threaten the Everglades in Florida.”
He also said, “A decent society shows compassion for the young, the elderly, the vulnerable and the poor. Our first obligation is to the most vulnerable—infants, poor mothers, children living in poverty … I believe we should help working families cope with the burden of child care. Our help should be aimed at those who need it most: low-income families with young children.”
Years later, his son, George W. Bush, pledged “to keep the vital promises of Medicare and Social Security. … We double the Medicare budget over the next 10 years. My budget dedicates $238 billion to Medicare next year alone, enough to fund all current programs and to begin a new prescription drug benefit for low-income seniors. No senior in America should have to choose between buying food and buying prescriptions.”
On civil rights, he argued, “too many of our citizens have cause to doubt our nation’s justice when the law points a finger of suspicion at groups instead of individuals. All our citizens are created equal and must be treated equally. … racial profiling [is] wrong, and we will end it in America.”
These examples suggest that, at least up until now, presidents of all political persuasion have felt an obligation to acknowledge allegiance to at least some aspects of a “liberal” political outlook.
If President Trump’s speech is anything like his acceptance speech or his inaugural address, it is going to have a very different tone and substance. The words crafted by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller have conveyed one clear message: I meant what I said in my campaign and I am at war with the prevailing Washington consensus. I am a disrupter.
That kind of opening address has never been heard in the halls of Congress. It would upend decades of tradition.
And if I found myself in a Vegas casino, that’s exactly what I’d be putting my money on.