Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama, think big for State of the Union

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
February 12, 2013 -- Updated 1049 GMT (1849 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Obama delivers first State of the Union of second term
  • He says it's an opportunity for president to sketch a broad vision for U.S.
  • Speech comes at a time of continuing economic troubles in America, he says
  • Zelizer: Obama can follow in the footsteps of FDR and LBJ

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."

(CNN) -- President Obama is set to deliver the first State of the Union Address of his new term. On Tuesday evening, he will step before a joint session of Congress and a nation in difficult times.

Unemployment rose in January to 7.9%. There are signs of economic progress, but millions of Americans are struggling to find a job while others are desperate to keep the one they have.

Other kinds of economic challenges face many people. The Pew Research Center recently released a study showing the growing number of adults who are struggling to support grown children and their parents, the "Sandwich Generation" as they are called.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The economy is just the tip of the iceberg. The issue of immigration needs to be resolved soon. Too many immigrants live in a state of constant uncertainty about their future, or that of their children. The tensions in this debate are heightened by the fact that state and local governments are struggling to find enough revenue to pay for crucial services such as education.

The climate also remains in peril, as the wild weather patterns of the past year have shown. At the same time, Americans are still reeling from the deadly shooting incidents that have caused horrible bloodshed in movie theaters and schools and waiting to see what Washington does, or does not do, about guns. Then there are the countless foreign policy challenges we face.

The State of the Union address gives President Obama a prime opportunity to lay out what he intends to do in the year ahead to guide the nation through these difficult challenges. Although there are limits to how much these speeches can change public opinion, especially in an age of partisan polarization where large segments of the electorate are hard to move, it still is a vital moment where he can help shape the agenda for the coming year and outline some key themes for public discussion.

John King: Speech may do little to change Washington

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It may be tempting to list a series of measures Obama wants Congress to pass, but the president should use this speech to do something more than provide a laundry list, and the historical record offers some guidance about how.

The speech can offer a vision. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt gave one of the most historic State of the Union addresses when he outlined the Four Freedoms. He delivered his speech on the brink of America becoming involved in World War II. With Europe and Asia in the middle of a major military crisis, FDR defined the four freedoms that he believed should be the foundation of the international system: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God, the freedom from want and, finally, the freedom from fear.

"That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation," FDR said. "That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb." The speech was inspirational and offered a moral blueprint for the United States, both in its efforts at home and abroad for decades to come.

Obama: Avoid sequester, pass small cuts
CNN Explains: The State of the Union

If President Obama wants to sketch a set of legislative goals, he might look to President Johnson. In 1965, LBJ was fresh off his landslide victory against Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and he managed to outline a breathtaking agenda, offering proposals for government to expand its role in all walks of life, from education to health care to the environment.

This was all part of the Great Society, a vision that Johnson had outlined a few months earlier at the University of Michigan but which came to life during the State of the Union address. "The Great Society asks not how much," Johnson said, "but how good; not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed."

Sometimes the State of the Union address can be an opportunity for a president to take a risk, to set out an objective for the nation that might be controversial or might look impossible at the time, but which challenges Congress and the citizens to repair broken parts of society.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln, with America in the Civil War, insisted that the freedom of the slave was essential to the restoration of the union. "We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve."

The speech can also be a moment for honesty. One speech that often receives attention in top 10 lists is President Gerald Ford's State of the Union address in 1975. Ford is an unlikely candidate for any historic list, as he took over from Richard Nixon after his resignation and wouldn't be re-elected in 1976.

Ford governed in difficult economic times -- the nation was hit by the twin shock of inflation and unemployment, which came to be known as stagflation. When Ford went on the air, he was brutally honest. The state of the nation, he said, "is not good."

Ford proceeded to outline what Americans were facing. "Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow."

While presidents usually like to use these speeches to make Americans feel good about where they are, President Obama might think about speaking straight to a nation frustrated with a new normal of stagnant growth, where politicians talk about economic improvement even as the workforce continually struggles with high rates of unemployment and economic insecurity.

While Americans want a leader who can point a path forward, they also want to know that the person in the White House truly understands the pain many are suffering.

In his first State of the Union address, delivered in January 2010, President Obama stressed his promise to help the middle class and to fix the broken political process in Washington. "We face a deficit of trust," he said.

In his second address, delivered after the Republicans had taken over the House and in the wake of the horrific shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, President Obama again appealed to the desire for unity. He also called on Congress to support a legislative package that would allow the United States to regain its competitive edge.

In January 2012, Obama, highlighted the differences between the parties—the choice Americans would face in the upcoming election--by calling on Congress to support investments in education, infrastructure and clean energy. He warned that growing economic inequality threatened the future of the middle class. "We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well," he said, "while a growing number of Americans barely get by or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

This time around, the president should think big, not necessarily about how much he wants to propose, but about the vision and ideas he wants to put forth to move the United States forward.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer


ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT