When President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he will face a challenge that also confronted each of his four immediate predecessors: responding to an election that ended his party’s unified control of Congress.
Like Biden, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all entered the White House with their party also controlling the House and Senate. That initially allowed all of them to drive an aggressive legislative agenda. But like Biden, each of them during their presidency saw voters send a signal of discontent by shifting control of one or both congressional chambers to the other party.
In their first State of the Union after that defeat, each president grappled directly with the new power alignment in Washington. But in their reaction to that uncomfortable reality, Biden’s predecessors offer contrasting models for how he may approach Tuesday’s speech.
Obama and Clinton, the two Democrats over that period, were the most conciliatory and even contrite, congratulating the new majority, pledging to work across party lines and signaling they would seek the political center. Trump, after the most cursory feints toward bipartisanship, was by far the most confrontational, reasserting his most polarizing campaign themes and warning the new Democratic House majority against investigating him. Bush fell in between: gracious and conciliatory both in tone and on his domestic agenda but unbending over his plans to escalate the Iraq War.
Many observers I spoke with expect Biden to offer a synthesis as well: much more conciliatory toward the new majority than Trump, but not nearly as deferential as Obama and Clinton.
Because it is so central to his political identity, Biden is likely to stress his commitment to cooperating across party lines and tout his success at completing multiple bipartisan bills over the past two years. But on balance, it would not be surprising if Biden’s blend of compromise and confrontation lands somewhat closer to his Republican, than Democratic, predecessors. “I think it’s a pretty clear that [Biden] is going to pledge to cooperate where he can and then to confront where he must,” said Paul Begala, a political adviser to Clinton and CNN political commentator.
The president may feel more comfortable tilting that dial more toward confrontation than Clinton or Obama did, because Biden did not suffer nearly as many midterm losses as either of them – or for that matter, Trump and Bush.
“I think Biden’s political situation is stronger not weaker after the midterm because the expectation was they would lose the House by more and would lose the Senate as well,” said Pete Wehner, a White House adviser to George W. Bush. “He wasn’t repudiated in the midterm like any of the others were.”
Each of Biden’s four predecessors surrendered many more House seats in the midterm election that ended their unified control of Congress. Bush lost more than 30 in 2006, Trump more than 40 in 2018, Clinton more than 50 in 1994, and Obama more than 60 in 2010 (the biggest midterm reversal for either party since 1938). Bush, Clinton, and Obama also lost at least six Senate seats as well. By contrast, while Republicans did narrowly recapture the House, Democrats far outperformed expectations in 2022, surrendering only 10 seats in the chamber and actually gaining a Senate seat (as well as control of more governorships and state legislatures).
Biden’s political situation, by many measures, remains tenuous. His approval rating in most polls remains stuck well below 50%, a critical threshold of strength for a president, and surveys show most Americans are downbeat about the economy, uncertain about his physical and mental capacity and unconvinced he has accomplished much in office. Yet the 2022 election demonstrated that an unusually large numbers of voters somewhat dissatisfied with Biden and the economy were still willing to support Democratic candidates because they viewed Republicans as too extreme – a dynamic that could buoy him again in 2024.
“I think he’s got a pretty easy hand in terms of what you try and do with a State of the Union,” says Wehner, the former Bush aide. “One is you portray your case and your agenda as reasonable and responsible. And then what you try and do is put your opponents in a box, which is to portray them as extreme, as reckless, as irresponsible and radical if they oppose you. The advantage Joe Biden has is the party opposing him is in many respects, reckless, irresponsible and extreme.”
The State of the Union, by its very structure, encourages the president to strike a magnanimous tone. Though the address doesn’t command as large a national television audience as it once did, the viewership remains far larger than for a president’s typical appearance. Like football announcers at the Super Bowl, presidents and their teams recognize that in the State of the Union their audience includes viewers who don’t usually pay much attention to what they do and might be tuning in just this one time a year.
“Clearly they are not speaking to Congress, they are speaking to the public – and they are speaking to a bigger audience than they normally have,” said George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science emeritus at Texas A& M who studies presidential rhetoric. “They want to present themselves as statemen, clearly. … They want to be above the political fray; they don’t want to be just a politician.”
The first State of the Union after losing control of one or both chambers is always difficult for a president. Divided government reduces their ability to advance their legislative priorities and exposes them to combative Congressional investigations. The physical presence of a House Speaker from the other party sitting behind him reminds each president that he no longer holds unqualified control of the legislative agenda or the political spotlight.
Clinton, for instance, seemed so rattled by his losses in 1994 that he delivered a meandering, nearly 90-minute speech that continued for a full 23 paragraphs even after he finally announced, “Well, my fellow Americans, that’s my agenda for America’s future.” As I wrote at the time, Clinton “seemed reluctant to leave the podium – as if he recognized that once he ceded the stage, the political initiative would return to the man sitting behind him, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.”
But, while it might have been through gritted teeth, Obama, Bush and Clinton all held to the “statesman” posture by explicitly congratulating the new majority from the other party early in their first post-loss State of the Union. Bush was the most elaborately gracious, noting that Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind him, had just become the House’s first female speaker. In the very first line of his 2007 State of the Union address (after losing control of both the House and Senate in 2006), Bush declared: “Tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own – as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.”
Obama, Bush and Clinton also explicitly courted the voters who had just rejected their party in the previous election. For each, that effort began long before the speech: in press conferences immediately after their midterm losses, Bush described the 2006 results as a “thumpin’” while Obama referred to the 2010 GOP sweep as a “shellacking.”
In the State of the Union itself, each of them sought to reassure dissatisfied voters that he heard their message. In his 1995 address, Clinton framed the GOP sweep the previous fall (which carried them to majorities in both the House and Senate) as an extension of the demand for change that powered his victory two years earlier. In both those elections, Clinton declared, “I must say … we didn’t hear America singing, we heard America shouting. And now all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, must say: We hear you. We will work together.”
Clinton went further by openly acknowledging his own errors during his often chaotic first two years. “I am frank to say that I have made my mistakes, and I have learned again the importance of humility in all human endeavor,” he said early in the speech. Later, referring to his failed effort to pass a universal health care program, he admitted: “I know that last year … we bit off more than we could chew.”
Begala, the former adviser, says Clinton was comfortable conceding missteps so openly because that humility had been key to his revival in Arkansas after he lost his first reelection as governor in 1980. “Clinton was familiar with that pattern,” Begala said. “Plus he was confident in his ability to resurrect his career.”
Obama, in his 2011 speech, was not as openly contrite, but also offered an extensive plea for bipartisan cooperation. His address was shaped by the shooting, just over two weeks before, of Rep. Gabby Giffords in Arizona; some Republicans and Democrats, in response, crossed the typical partisan separation in the chamber to sit together during the speech, as a way to symbolize their desire to cool partisan hostilities.
“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” Obama declared. “That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. … We will move forward together, or not at all.”
Notably, Obama and Clinton both reinforced the rhetorical calls for bipartisanship by emphasizing policy proposals they believed would appeal across party lines. After the failure of his massive universal health care plan in 1994, Clinton invited Republicans to “work together” to pursue incremental changes “step by step.” He pledged his determination to control the deficit and reform the federal government’s operation: “I think we all agree that we have to change the way the government works,” Clinton said. “Let’s make it…less costly and smaller – leaner, not meaner.” That statement was a major step toward Clinton’s more famous declaration in his 1996 State of the Union that “The era of big government is over.”
Throughout his 2011 speech, Obama also repeatedly stressed his commitment to reducing the deficit. Bush in 2007 praised ideas he believed would appeal to the new Democratic House and Senate majorities: education reform and a comprehensive immigration plan that linked more border security with a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented migrants.
Yet while offering conciliation, and even contrition, Clinton, Obama and Bush all blended confrontation into their first post-loss State of the Union. Clinton said he would work with Republicans on the deficit but drew a hard line against cuts in Social Security and Medicare and also vowed to preserve the assault weapon ban he had passed in 1994. Obama promised to fight any efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act he had passed in 2010 and to oppose a permanent extension of Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.
Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s White House communications director, told me the president was acutely conscious of not appearing to give as much ground to arguments from the other party as Clinton did with his declaration that the era of big government was over. “You wanted to acknowledge the country had sent a message and you had heard that message,” said Pfeiffer. “But you did not want to go as far as ‘the era of big government is over,’ which seemed to many a waving of the white flag.”
Bush, in his first speech after losing Congressional control, dug in more emphatically than Clinton or Obama. Despite his conciliatory language and outreach to Democrats on domestic policy Bush guaranteed a season of confrontation with the new Congressional majorities by the policy he announced two weeks before his address: a “surge” of additional troops into Iraq to try to break an escalating cycle of sectarian violence.
To put it mildly, Bush was not given to public expressions of doubt, but he offered an implicit concession to his critics when he acknowledged, “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we’re in.” Yet he recognized he was lighting a political firestorm with his decision to deploy more troops, after an election in which disenchantment and exhaustion with the war had fueled the Democratic gains.
“Bush wasn’t temperamentally confrontational, he wasn’t looking for a fight in Congress,” said Wehner, now a senior fellow at The Trinity Forum, a faith-based thinktank. “But this was something he felt was important, and if it required him…to lean against the winds, he was certainly willing to do that.”
Of the four previous presidents who lost unified control of Congress during their tenure, Trump’s speech stands apart. He was alone among the four in refusing to congratulate the new Democratic House majority – or even to acknowledge their victory. (Despite losing over 40 House seats, the morning after the election he tweeted about the many “congratulations” he had received on his “Big Victory,” presumably referring to the GOP gain of two Senate seats.)
After momentarily praising bipartisan cooperation (“we can break decades of political stalemate”) Trump returned to his familiar polarizing themes. He declared that he alone was confronting problems “neglected by leaders of both parties over many decades”; continued his criticism of the Affordable Care Act; demanded funding to build his border wall; and repeated the claim that “caravans” of Central American migrants threatened the southern border, an argument Republicans and Fox News Channel had pressed during the election. He punctuated his belligerent message with a warning against “ridiculous partisan investigations” that he said could undermine the “economic miracle … taking place in the United States.” (Trump’s State of the Union in 2020 was even more bellicose, to the point where Pelosi famously ripped up her copy of it after he finished.)
No one expects quite so harsh a tone from Biden. But neither do many expect him to signal as explicit a centrist course correction as Obama and Clinton did in their speeches. Biden in some ways has already started a similar process, particularly by announcing stronger measures to secure the border and many expect him to highlight those in an attempt to fortify his defenses against coming Republican attacks. And he is certain to signal his willingness to negotiate with Republicans on an array of issues, particularly reducing the deficit.
But, despite his lackluster approval ratings, Biden’s relatively better midterm performance has clearly left him feeling less need than Clinton or Obama for a sweeping repositioning: when asked the day after the election what he intended to change, Biden pointedly declared, “nothing.”
“It’s one thing to be bipartisan: it’s another thing to give into the Republicans, to say ‘I’m going to go along with your ideas,’” notes Edwards. “Biden doesn’t need to do that.”
Given his stronger position, many expect Biden to focus more than Clinton or Obama on what he will not negotiate: cutting Social Security or Medicare, attaching any budget conditions to legislation raising the debt ceiling, terminating aid to Ukraine, undoing the clean energy incentives of the Inflation Reduction Act, or accepting nationwide restrictions on abortion.
“While Joe Biden has a reputation that he would work with anyone and will make that point, everyone is more realistic about who this Republican Party is: Half of them voted to overturn [his] election,” said Pfeiffer “This is as much about setting the terms for the battle to come as it is about responding to a public dissatisfaction with the sitting president.”
In one key respect, the experience of Biden’s two recent Democratic predecessors suggests the path ahead may look the same no matter how he approaches the speech. Though both Clinton and Obama emphasized their willingness to cooperate and their determination to reduce the deficit, within months both anyway found themselves in fierce firefights with the new GOP majorities over the federal budget. No matter what Biden says on Tuesday, or the tone in which he says it, the same fate inevitably may be barreling toward him too.