Featured Post

Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Thursday, March 14, 2024

States of the Union

Early in his State of the Union address last week President Biden quoted from Franklin Roosevelt's parallel address on  January 6, 1941.  He repeated Roosevelt's opening words: that this was "an unprecedented moment in the history of the nation."  Never before, Roosevelt said, had the security of the United States been so directly threatened from abroad.  This moment, Biden said, was equally unprecedented: "Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today."  

A broader comparison of the two addresses makes a broader point.  They were given at crucially different moments in the two presidents' tenures.  FDR had just been re-elected for the second time by an impressive margin; Biden faces a very tight struggle for his own re-election.  The comparison suggests that they were speaking to very different nations, whose common political system was working very differently.  The differences raise profound questions about our future.

Television had just been invented and was not yet operating regularly in 1941.  Roosevelt's speech was broadcast on radio and printed in its entirety in  many major newspapers.  It began with a nine-paragraph summary of the country's relations with the rest of the world since 1789, insisting that " the United States as a nation has at all times maintained clear, definite opposition, to any attempt to lock us in behind an ancient Chinese wall while the procession of civilization went past."  Then he proclaimed a worldwide threat to "the democratic way of life" all over the world--"assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace."  Victory by the unnamed "assailants" on four other continents would threaten the Americas with overwhelming force. A "dictator's peace" would bring "no security for us or for our neighbors." The American people, he said, had to assist democratic forces now fighting around the world, and to increase their own armaments production dramatically.  He referred to the lend-lease program he had put forward in another broadcast a few weeks earlier to supply warring nations with critical opinion without requiring payments in cash or in debt obligations.  He talked in some detail about the industrial requirements of massive new arms production and the need to move more quickly in several areas. He called for higher taxes to pay for all this.  He mentioned that his opponent in the recent election had not disagreed with him on the basic principles of foreign policy, and like most presidents delivering their annual address in the first 160 or so years of the nation's history, he never referred to Republicans or Democrats.

All this, he continued, allowed the nation to "look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms"--freedom of speech, "freedom of every person to worship God in his own way," "freedom from want," and "freedom from fear"--the right to live in a world of reduced armaments that would no longer allow any nation to undertake aggression against others.  "This nation," he concluded, " has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory."  The joint session responded during his speech with periodic, polite applause.

Biden's speech reads very differently.  Roosevelt talked in short paragraphs; Biden talked mostly in one-liners.  He began by listing not one, but three major problems: Putin's aggression in Ukraine, threats to democracy at home, and the attack on abortion rights and even IVF in various states.  He asked Congress to approve aid to Ukraine and promised to sign a bill restoring Roe v. Wade as the law of the land if Congress would pass it.   

Then came the bulk of the speech: a long list of Biden's accomplishments, as he sees them, with respect to the economy.  The American people, he announced, "are writing the greatest comeback story never told." Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, he referred to progress in employment, unemployment, small business creation, health insurance, the racial wealth gap, inflation, infrastructure construction, the trade balance, chip production, lower drug prices, the Affordable Care Act, and clean energy. He praised the achievements of unions and bragged about standing on a picket line.  Then he turned to the future.

Biden called for lower prices for insulin and other drugs, and promised cheaper housing costs and rents.  He called for "the best education system in the world," as every president at least since George H. W. Bush has done,  more preschool opportunities, and cheaper college and more college debt forgiveness. Then he called for higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy and the restoration of the pandemic-induced child care credit. He announced cuts in credit-card fees and new requirements for stating prices accurately. Then he turned to border security, and blamed the Republicans for failing to pass a recent compromise bill, referring, as he did thirteen times, to his "predecessor."  He called for new voting rights protections, opposed banning books, and told transgender Americans, "I have your back."  He talked about new steps to reduce gun violence.  Returning to foreign affairs, he tried to strike a balance between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza and talked about measures taken against the Houthis in response to their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. And in conclusion, he briefly reviewed his own long life in politics and asked the American people to "build the future together."

The reception of his speech was very different from that of FDR in 1940.  Democrats constantly interrupted with raucous cheers and applause, while Republicans sat stony-faced and occasionally heckled him.  Vice President Harris contributed to the atmosphere by repeatedly rising to her feet while applauding.  FDR aimed his words at the whole nation, threatened by war, while Biden generally aimed his at various Democratic constituencies and drew the maximum possible contrast between the two parties.  It would have been very hard to draft a speech that could actually have bridged the gaps between our parties--perhaps as hard as it would have been for Lincoln on March 4, 1861. Roosevelt also faced lots of very bitter opposition both in Congress and in the country, but he could ignore it because he had just been elected for the third time by very impressive popular and electoral majorities. Much of the Republican Party, including his opponent in the late presidential election, Wendell Willkie, agreed with him about aiding other nations--particularly the British--and preparing for possible war. Fortunately for the United States and for the rest of the world, the nation in 1941 was capable of united action on a scale we could never match today.

Roosevelt also talked throughout the speech about general principles and broad currents of history.  Biden focused on emotional specifics, reinforced from time to time by the identification of illustrative individuals sitting in the gallery.  And Biden could not have put forward four principles like FDR's four freedoms, because even their language has become controversial.  Freedom of religion, which all Americans in 1940 understood as the right to practice their own faith, now has an entirely new meaning, one endorsed by Supreme Court majorities.  Freedom of speech is under attack in many Democratic-leaning institutions.  All this raises a profound question.   My new book shows how the success of the  United States in its first 200 years may well have depended on certain measured forms of discourse, on a belief in the nation's institutions that transcended partisanship, and on attempts to keep emotions under control.  We are about to find out whether the American experiment can survive without those habits.

p.s.  A serious family medical emergency delayed the appearance of this post.  Fortunately I can report that the patient has weathered her crisis and is definitely on the mend now--although full recovery will take some time.

1 comment:

Energyflow said...

I saw a short Trump interview when he was 34, saying Lincoln would not have become president nowadays as he was not telegenic, for TV, no big fake smile and good looks. The medium is the message. Attention spans of humans, tik tok, youtube shorts based, is now less than small birds, scientifically proven. I have a boring, repetitive, physical employment, that can drive me crazy if I have not enough sleep to process the mental stress in my system. I had a couple days short sleep and was reminded of military sleep deprivation studies on grunt soldiers. Mental and physical discipline, flexibility, friendliness all work together. Lincoln was a lawyer but also boxed, cut wood among other things. He and Douglas debated for hours to a rapt crowd of similar. In the 1920s half the USA population were farmers. Much of urban population were in factories. I recall my father telling of delivering newspapers and messages between stock brokers offices by bike in his youth in the 30s. Cars were not universally owned and packaged foods, supermarkets, off the line clothing not to be expected. Consumerism and advertising were just being invented. Swaying of the mind by Bernays, Nephew of Freud, admired, copied by Goebbels was new. Later CIA and KGB had mind control tricks. Life has become superficial, detached from substantial existence, as understood by an illiterate farmer in the third world or everyman of any class preindustrially 300 years ago. Self analysis, 19th century philosophy or poetry all lost power to intellectual streams of the 1920s which became mainstream with 60s hippies. Life is what you feel they seemed to say. Soup can as art. Now anyone can have a TV channel on various platforms. Fame is cheap. Chaplin would have laughed as first global star. My wife told me of a young Russian man from her area who was just a poor boy, self taught, and went to Moscow to found the first university. Such feats as in America back then. We need real heroes. Maybe we have to find the hero in ourselves, to believe again, not be utterly cynical, hopeless, mean. Some times are raucous, competitive, others just mean, corrupt, decadent. It is hard to know if our energy is productive or just sick, negative, sociopathic. Are we in the 1890s or is it the fall of Rome? Times like this are obviously necessary, rationally observing. A House Divided cannot stand. Then perhaps a strong new foundation will be laid. Perhaps the 80 year cycle is more 160 year with internal strife followed 80 years later by external wars, as crises. Maybe a higher order combining agnostics, atheists urbanists with rural Christians will raise us to a new level with belief in ourselves and in God.