An SOTU Tradition: Blame Your Predecessor

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Some excerpts of the first State of the Union address of a new president:

Today marks my first State of the Union address to you, a constitutional duty as old as our republic itself. President Washington began this tradition in 1790 after reminding the nation that the destiny of self-government and the “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty” is “finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” From this podium, Winston Churchill asked the free world to stand together against the onslaught of aggression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of a day of infamy and summoned a nation to arms. And Douglas MacArthur made an unforgettable farewell to a country he had loved and served so well. Dwight Eisenhower reminded us that peace was purchased only at the price of strength and John F. Kennedy spoke of the burden and glory that is freedom.

When I visited this chamber last year as a newcomer to Washington, critical of past policies which I believe had failed, I proposed a new spirit of partnership between this Congress and this Administration and between Washington and our state and local governments. In forging this new partnership for America we could achieve the oldest hopes of our republic’s prosperity for our nation, peace for the world, and the blessings of individual liberty for our children and, someday, for all of humanity.

It’s my duty to report to you tonight on the progress that we have made in our relations with other nations, on the foundation we’ve carefully laid for our economic recovery and, finally, on a bold and spirited initiative that I believe can change the face of American government and make it again the servant of the people.

Seldom have the stakes been higher for America. What we do and say here will make all the difference to auto workers in Detroit, lumberjacks in the Northwest, to black teen-agers in Newark and Chicago; to hard-pressed farmers and small businessmen and to millions of everyday Americans who harbor the simple wish of a safe and financially secure future for their children.

To understand the State of the Union, we must look not only at where we are and where we’re going but where we’ve been. The situation at this time last year was truly ominous….Late last year, we sank into the present recession….This time, however, things are different. We have an economic program in place completely different from the artificial quick-fixes of the past….If we had not acted as we did, things would be far worse for all Americans than they are today. Inflation, taxes and interest rates would all be higher.

A year ago, Americans’ faith in their governmental process was steadily declining. Six out of ten Americans were saying they were pessimistic about their future. A new kind of defeatism was heard. Some said our domestic problems were uncontrollable that we had to learn to live with the-seemingly endless cycle of high inflation and high unemployment. There were also pessimistic predictions about the relationship between our Administration and this Congress. It was said we could never work together.

Actually, that’s not what President Barack Obama is going to say on Wednesday night. It was the start of Ronald Reagan’s first State of the Union speech. (I tweaked just a few words to not give it away, but only a few.) What’s notable is that Reagan began that address by playing up the problems of the past—essentially pointing a finger at Jimmy Carter. With Republicans and conservative poised to jump on Obama for daring to note that he’s still dealing with profound problems bequeathed to him (and the nation) by the Bush-Cheney administration, fair-minded observers should recall that the Great Gipper was also a pretty good blamer.

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