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.