Past Presidents Made History In First Address To Congress

Feb 25, 2017
Originally published on February 26, 2017 8:12 am

When new presidents address Congress for the first time, they can scarcely be said to be making a first impression. In recent years, even the youngest presidents have become familiar to everyone in the country via their careers, their campaigns and the constant attention of the media.

Yet there remains a special quality to the moment when a new president first enters the House chamber, shaking hands and making his way to the speaker's rostrum, turning finally to look out at the leading figures of the entire federal power structure — all in one place and staring back at him.

So it was for a 47-year-old former first term senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who just eight years ago this week gave his first address. He would make no mention of being the first African-American president, but rather focused from the outset on a national economy in free fall.

"The impact of this recession is real and it is everywhere," Obama said. "But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."

There was in these remarks a distant echo of John F. Kennedy's first address to Congress in January 1961. Just 43 at the time, Kennedy too had been elevated from the middle-ranks of the Senate in part by economic anxiety. And he said as much to Congress the first chance he got.

"The present state of our economy is disturbing," Kennedy intoned. "We take office in the wake of seven months of recession, three and one-half years of slack, seven years of diminished economic growth, and nine years of falling farm income ...

"Life in 1961 will not be easy. Wishing it, predicting it, even asking for it, will not make it so. There will be further setbacks before the tide is turned. But turn it we must."

Kennedy and Obama both gave other speeches that were more famous. But as freshly inaugurated presidents they both got down to business with Congress, setting a marker for the programs they would pursue.

So too in his own way did George W. Bush when he stood before a joint session for the first time on Feb. 27, 2001. Like his father George H.W. Bush, the second president Bush came to office in good economic times, with the federal budget projected to be in surplus and no thought yet of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Our generation must show courage in a time of blessing as our nation has always shown in times of crisis," Bush said. "And our courage, issue by issue, can gather to greatness and serve our country. This is the privilege and responsibility we share. And if we work together, we can prove that public service is noble."

Bush was not known as a compelling speaker, and the audience for his first address to Congress was about 40 million viewers, down sharply from the 67 million who tuned in for Bill Clinton's first address in 1993. (A record for President Trump to shoot for.)

Whether Clinton drew that size crowd for his speaking appeal or roguish reputation may be hard to discern, but he had his sense of humor. His first sentence was "it is nice to have a fresh excuse for giving a long speech."

Clinton offered a preview of two of the major issues of his first term. He spoke of ending "welfare as we know it" and also of tackling the costs and gaps in the health care system.

"Our families will never be secure, our businesses will never be strong, and our government will never again be fully solvent until we tackle the health care crisis."

Twelve years earlier, Ronald Reagan had wowed both the chamber and the national TV audience with his first address to a joint session. It was February of 1981, just four weeks after he took the oath for his first term, and he was pitching the economic program that became his hallmark.

It included deep cuts to taxes and spending. It was a major departure from the New Deal consensus of the previous half-century, but Reagan got a warm partisan reception — including at an unexpected point late in his speech. Ever confident onstage, the former actor quipped "I should have arranged to quit right there."

Another kind of crisis afflicted Gerald Ford in 1974 when he first addressed a joint session in August of 1974. It was just three days after Richard Nixon had resigned and Vice President Ford had been sworn in to succeed him.

"I do not want a honeymoon with you," he said, "I want a good marriage."

He promised to listen to Congress, and to the people, "to be sure that we are all tuned in to the real voice of America."

Still, the most dramatic first address to Congress in the post-war era had to be that of Lyndon Johnson in November 1963 just days after he had been elevated to the presidency by the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

"All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today," he said. "The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time."

And later in that speech, Johnson vowed to pursue the legacy he had inherited.

"On the 20th day of January, in 1961, John F. Kennedy told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished 'in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But,' he said, 'let us begin.' "

Then Johnson added: "Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue."

Continuity of tradition and shared power is what ceremonies such as the address to Congress are all about. They start the process by which independent personalities become part of the government, to envelop them in the context they are confronting.

Even the most disruptive and embattled presidents have come to realize that — no matter how much they see themselves as champions of the people — they cannot escape the constraints of the office in which they serve.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When President Trump addresses Congress for the first time on Tuesday night, the Capitol will be filled with Washington's most powerful people all taking the measure of the man who has been made the most powerful of them all. It's a ritual that opens a new era.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERNHARD LAUBIN, HANNES LAUBIN, NORBERT SCHMITT, SIMON PRESTON AND WOLFGANG LAUBIN'S "MOURET: SINFONIES DE FANFARE IN D MAJOR - 1. RONDEAU")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Professor Ron - you know him as NPR's Ron Elving - has a bit of history to share.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Imagine yourself a rookie president entering the House Chamber for the first time. You shake hands as you make your way slowly to the speaker's rostrum. You turn and look out at all the leading figures of official Washington - the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff - all in one place and staring at you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONGRESS JOINT SESSION MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #1: Members of the Congress...

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #2: My colleagues of the Congress...

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #1: ...I have the high privilege...

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #3: And the distinct honor of presenting to you...

UNIDENTIFIED VICE PRESIDENT #2: ...The president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: So it was for a 47-year-old first-term senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who just eight years ago gave his first address to a joint session. He focused immediately on a national economy in free fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BARACK OBAMA: But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken - though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this - we will rebuild. We will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: Obama gave other speeches that were more famous, but this one was about getting down to business with Congress. George W. Bush did much the same at his first joint session in February 2001. Like his father, George H.W. Bush, the second President Bush came to office in good economic times. The federal budget was showing a surplus and there was no talk yet of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, Bush chose a theme of challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GEORGE W. BUSH: Our generation must show courage in a time of blessing as our nation has always shown in times of crisis. And our courage, issue by issue, can gather to greatness and serve our country. This is the privilege and responsibility we share.

ELVING: Both the first and second President Bush had hard acts to follow. The first came in after Ronald Reagan, peerless speechmaker. The second followed Bill Clinton, whose first speech to Congress drew a record 67 million TV watchers in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BILL CLINTON: It is nice to have a fresh excuse for giving a long speech.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: Clinton also offered a preview of two of the major issues of his first term. He spoke of ending welfare as we know it and also of tackling the costs and gaps in the health care system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CLINTON: Our families will never be secure. Our businesses will never be strong. And our government will never again be fully solvent until we tackle the health care crisis. We must do it this year.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: A dozen years earlier, President Reagan had wowed both the chamber and the national TV audience with his first address to a joint session. It was February of 1981, and he was pitching the economic program that became his hallmark. But Reagan got a warm, bipartisan reception, including at an unexpected point late in his speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RONALD REAGAN: I - I should've arranged to quit right there.

(LAUGHTER)

ELVING: There have been times when first addresses to Congress came at moments of national crisis. Gerald Ford made his in August of 1974, just three days after Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal. Ford, who had served in Congress for decades, told the members...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GERALD FORD: I do not want a honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: But surely, the most dramatic first address to Congress in the post-war era had to be that of Lyndon Johnson in November of 1963, just days after Jack Kennedy was assassinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: All I have, I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.

ELVING: Later in that speech, Johnson vowed to pursue the legacy he had inherited. JFK had once said, let us begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let us begin. Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: Continuity of tradition and shared power is what ceremonies such as this address to Congress are all about. They start the process by which new chief executives become part of the government they once might have railed against.

Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.