When President Obama enters the well of the House tonight to deliver his highly anticipated speech on jobs and the economy, he will encounter strong headwinds of public doubt about Washington’s ability to get anything done.
To counter the skepticism about the future, we thought we’d look to the past for a different perspective. And as you might have guessed, it turns out that a presidential address to a joint session of Congress can change the course of history.
Apart from State of the Union speeches, presidents don’t often address joint sessions. But when the stakes are high – usually involving war or the economy — addresses to Congress have a venerable tradition. John Adams, our second president, did it first in 1797 – to discuss relations with France in what was called the “Quasi War.”
President George W. Bush and Bill Clinton delivered a pair of non-State of the Union addresses to Congress each. And tonight’s appearance by President Obama will be his second, following his speech on health care reform in 2009.
In between there have been many forgettable speeches – who remembers Warren G. Harding’s coal and railroad message of 1922? – and a handful that, for better or worse, have made history. Here are seven of them:
1. George W. Bush: “War on Terrorism” (September 20, 2001)
Just days after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, President Bush met with Congress to discuss the future of national security. President Bush’s speech helped strengthen the nation’s resolve in seeking justice for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, while providing healing to all those who were affected by the 9/11 attacks.
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Pearl Harbor speech” (December 8, 1941)
“December 7th, 1941, a date that will live in infamy…” just a day after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a joint session of congress to ask for a declaration of war. FDR’s speech resonated throughout the nation as millions of Americans came together and prepared for entry in the Second World War.
3. John F. Kennedy: “Man to the Moon” (May 25, 1961)
The spring of 1961 was a dramatic time for aerospace science. In April, the Soviets sent the first human in space, and Americans responded by sending Alan Shepherd into space, as well. Yet President Kennedy appeared in front of Congress and offered a unique challenge to be completed before the end of the decade: send a man to the Moon. The president’s request came to fulfillment in 1969 thanks to NASA and Apollo 11.
4. Harry Truman : “Truman Doctrine” (March 12, 1947)
President Truman called upon Congress to announce a new foreign policy. Nicknamed the Truman Doctrine, the U.S. shift in policy was due in part to the events in both Greece and Turkey. President Truman stated that the United States would help both countries from falling into the “Soviet Sphere.” The Truman Doctrine became the first step in the containment policy of keeping Soviet expansion to a minimum during the Cold War.
5. Ronald Reagan: “Economic Recovery” (April 28, 1981)
Just a few weeks after an assassination attempt, President Reagan requested a joint session of Congress to talk about economic recovery. With the economy struggling, Reagan outlined a plan to reduce spending as soon as possible with the help of congressional leadership.
6. Woodrow Wilson: “Fourteen Points” (January 8, 1918)
In the aftermath of World War I, Woodrow Wilson announced his plan for getting Europe back on its proverbial two feet after the disastrous war. Known as the Fourteen Points, Wilson’s plan was generally welcomed by Europeans for his moral stance on post-war peace in Europe. Unfortunately, Wilson became sick during the Treaty of Versailles, and his Fourteen Points were altered by British and French leaders, who were not so forgiving of Germany.
7. Lyndon B. Johnson: “Voting Rights of 1965” (March 15, 1965)
President Johnson met with Congress to urge them to pass the 1965 Voting Rights bill. In the speech, President Johnson said that “every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.” At the end of the speech, the president shocked members of Congress by invoking the words of Dr. Martin Luther King stating, “We shall overcome.” Congress exploded in enthusiastic applause.