The Fix is counting down what we think are the five most important of these annual presidential talk-a-thons. They're ranked in order of their relative importance and lasting historical resonance. Woodrow Wilson's 1913 address came in at #5, and George W. Bush's first State of the Union after September 11, 2001 was #4. Today, we look back at Bill Clinton's 1996 address.
"The era of big Government is over. But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves. Instead, we must go forward as one America, one nation working together to meet the challenges we face together. Self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; we must have both."
This section of Bill Clinton's State of the Union on January 23, 1996 has become a frequent guest in political commentary (and even got a shout-out on the West Wing) in the 18 years since it was delivered, although we've forgotten everything that followed the quippy first sentence -- which became a repeated mantra in the president's re-election campaign and the remainder of his presidency. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss says the line was seen at the time as “a skywritten acknowledgment by someone who in another age might have liked to govern as a liberal Big Government Democrat that the Age of Reagan was so overwhelming that even a Democratic President had to work within its limits, making this speech almost a counterweight to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union,” which was the War on Poverty’s big debut.
As Jeff Madrick noted in 1996, "By absorbing the new American distaste for government after the Republican Congressional victory of 1994, he assured his re-election two years later. And in his second term Clinton was more concerned about restraining government spending and paying down the debt than investing in America."
At the time, reporters could already tell that this would be the line to remember -- and the one that voters and pundits alike would use to judge whether Clinton was excelling at his job. Ronald Brownstein wrote, "It was a stunning sign of the times when President Clinton, early in his State of the Union address, declared, 'The era of big government is over.' No other sentence in his 61-minute speech so dramatically captured the ideological climate that now defines American politics -- or the narrow line Clinton hopes to walk to reelection."
Although "the era of big government is over" is a reductive way to conceive of federal politics -- especially when you're a president with an ambitious agenda -- the country that just lived through a series of long government shutdowns wasn't looking for nuance. They rewarded Clinton by giving him by giving him a rare post-State of the Union approval boost of six percentage points.
The catchiness of "the era of big government is over" also proved its weakness. An article previewing Obama's 2014 State of the Union address this year mentions that the "memorable phrases" we love to pull out of presidential speeches -- like this one and "the axis of evil" -- "are usually designed for short-term political gain, not as substantive markers." However, if you provide the public and pundits shorthand intended as a supplement to your policy explanations, you can be sure that your policy will soon become synonymous with your soundbite. Over the years, the statement has been used as ammunition for policy ideas and ideological stances that Clinton likely never agreed with. The sentence, as originally worded by Clinton and his speechwriters, wasn't intended "to be a clear shift from liberalism," as a Los Angeles Times piece from last year noted: "As originally written, the line concluded with the caveat: "but the era of every man for himself must never begin." Some in the White House objected that 'man' was inappropriate. The line became: "but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves." Reworded, it was quickly forgotten.