Study Guide

1996 State of the Union Address Analysis

By William Clinton

  • Rhetoric

    Ethos

    The State of the Union Address is a formal event. It's sort of like prom for old, rich, mostly white people.

    The president doesn't want to cause a stir on his (or her) biggest night of the year, so you don't see a lot of fist pumping and yelling during most Addresses…unless it's coming from the audience. But the president does try to sway people, and create an agenda. Clinton's speech uses repeated "calls" and "challenges," directed toward Congress and other groups, to buttress this ethical agenda.

    At times the president's ethical appeals can sound borderline cliché. Clinton says:

    […] we must be bound together by a faith more powerful than any doctrine that divides us, by our belief in progress, our love of liberty, and our relentless search for common ground. (93.3)

    Although this moves toward eye-rolling territory, it's necessary for the president to strike an all-inclusive tone, especially in a time of such political division. Teamwork, after all, is one of the principles of the Democratic Party. Too bad he couldn't just pull out a guitar and lead everyone in camp songs.

  • Structure

    List of Issues

    A trademark of most Bill Clinton speeches (right down to his more recent stumping for Hillary's presidential campaign) is numbering. He starts off with a short introduction and then launches into a list-style presentation of the topics he wishes to cover.

    The 1996 State of the Union is no exception. In fact, it's a textbook example. Bill and speechwriter Michael Waldman structured the address around seven "challenges," or issues, facing the country, bookending the list with an intro and a fluffy conclusion.

    It's similar to the "hamburger" writing style you learn in high school (buns, plus a meaty middle).

    How it Breaks Down

    Intro

    Clinton salutes Congress (it boils down to, "sup, Mr. Speaker") and lays out his agenda for the evening. He also takes this opportunity to brag about his performance, declaring:

    The state of the Union is strong. Our economy is the healthiest it has been in three decades. (3.1-2)

    The Deficit

    Before launching into his laundry-list of "challenges," Bill gets right to the issue on everybody's mind: the national deficit. He and Republicans have one big disagreement: how fast should we be reducing the deficit, and how much should we be cutting?

    Clinton declares, "bipartisan agreement that permanent deficit spending" or spending borrowed money, "must come to an end" (10.2).

    Family Values

    Clinton's first challenge to America is pretty broad: "to cherish our children and strengthen America's families" (17.2).

    Seem like a cop-out? It's actually an ingenious way for a Democrat to start a speech, because in American politics, talking about the importance of family is, as Dr. Strangelove would put it, highly stimulating to many conservative-leaning voters. 

    Education

    Building on the previous section, Clinton talks education, with a focus on instilling America's youth with the proper values. He even flirts with the idea of school uniforms, saying:

    I challenge all our schools to teach character education, to teach good values and good citizenship. And if it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms. (33.2)

    Well, that hasn't happened yet…and we can't say we're too choked up about it.

    Welfare Reform

    In movies, the most important scene often comes smack-dab in the middle. The same goes for this almost-movie-length speech. To anchor his welfare reform rhetoric, Clinton stays on the subject of families.

    He argues for family tax credits (basically, you get to write of your kids on your tax form) (V.42.2), and repeats the phrase "working families" (41.1) to try to make his message hit home. This isn't about helping the government, he's saying—it's about helping normal people.

    Crime/Drug War

    After touting a couple bills he passed to expand law enforcement numbers and gun control, Clinton strikes a very conservative tone. He gets local, telling America that government can't do it all.

    More police and punishment are important, but they're not enough. We have got to keep more of our young people out of trouble, with prevention strategies not dictated by Washington but developed in communities. (56.1-2)

    Yup, that ol' community spirit rears its head again.

    Environment

    Clinton takes a moment to focus on "[leaving] our environment safe and clean for the next generation" (59.1). This is one of the more liberal-leaning moments of the speech.

    Sound familiar? Republicans, as in Bob Dole's response, focused on being responsible to the next generation by reducing the deficit, so Clinton preempts this by adding the environment to the "future generations" rhetoric cocktail.

    Foreign Policy

    Clinton summarizes America new role in world politics after the end of the Cold War (just a heads up: this is pretty much how the government still thinks of itself today).

    By keeping our military strong, by using diplomacy where we can and force where we must, by working with others to share the risk and the cost of our efforts, America is making a difference for people here and around the world. (68.1)

    Anyone else have the Team America theme song stuck in their head, too?

    Shrinking Government

    The big climax. Clinton touts how he has shrunk government and, in very conservative fashion, puts responsibility back on the shoulders of the people:

    I know that this evening I have asked a lot of Congress and even more from America. But I am confident: When Americans work together in their homes, their schools, their churches, their synagogues, their civic groups, their workplace, they can meet any challenge. (88.1-2)

    Aww, shucks. That sure does make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

    Conclusion and Shout Outs

    After nearly sixty minutes of Big Dog, we're finally in the home stretch. Clinton wraps up with a fluffy conclusion, where he praises a few everyday American heroes.

  • Tone

    Presidential: Formal, conciliatory, argumentative

    Have you ever turned the TV on during election season and heard some talking head pontificating about a candidate sounding "presidential?" Kind of like being "clutch" is a requirement for great basketball players, being "presidential" is a requirement for political speeches.

    It's a fluffy word, but it goes a long way toward describing the State of the Union Address. The tone is as formal as a business presentation; even in an election year (which 1996 was), the address is not the place to smear mud on your opponents.

    That's also why Clinton goes out of his way to be conciliatory, shouting out his future sparring partner Bob Dole (64.2). (They wouldn't be so friendly later during the debates.)

    It's also not a feel-good speech, like the president gives when granting an award or announcing a new initiative. Sometimes a leader has to attempt to draw a line in the sand, and Clinton used this speech to do that on government shutdowns, arguing to Congress:

    I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Let's never, ever shut the Federal Government down again. (86.1-2).

    Serious, formal, and visionary. Those sound like words to describe a president. Well, most of the time.

  • Writing Style

    Political/Campaign Speech: Clear, organized, linear

    Take a look through the text of the 1996 State of the Union through stunner shades.

    Without looking at the actual words, you'll notice paragraphs that rarely go on for more than five or six sentences, and sentences that rarely go on for more than a few lines.

    If you listen to the audio or watch the video delivery by Bill Clinton, you'll observe the same thing; this style of speech is as straightforward as you can expect from a historical text. The reason is simple: this is for TV, and you have to make sure everyone can follow along after having a big dinner and getting ready for bed.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Historians usually refer to State of the Union Addresses using a single formal title: "Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union."

    Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

    Several of the more famous State of the Unions have nicknames (for example, George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech or Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" speech).

    Clinton's 1996 address is most famous for the line, "the era of big government is over," but (so far) this phrase hasn't led to a catchier nickname. So for Shmoop purposes, just call it the 1996 State of the Union. It's just easier that way.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Thank you very much. Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of the 104th Congress, distinguished guests, my fellow Americans all across our land: Let me begin tonight by saying to our men and women in uniform around the world and especially those helping peace take root in Bosnia and to their families, I thank you. America is very, very proud of you. (1.1-3)

    The Constitution actually stipulates that the president has to report on the State of the Union in front of Congress. It's part of the job, much like pardoning a turkey.

    Except, unlike pardoning a turkey—or two, like our favorite birds Tater and Tot—the SOTU address is a formal requirement, part of the American tradition of checks and balances. So the Address typically begins with "Mister/Madam" Speaker, the formal leader of the legislative branch.

    Presidents are also Commander-in-Chief, so it's not surprising that Clinton would start by thanking the military and shouting out the successful peace efforts in Bosnia (1.2). When facing down so many Republican adversaries, he naturally wanted to start everything off on a good note…and what could be better than ending a bloody civil war?

    Nobody could deny that his work in the Balkans was a highpoint for Clinton's presidency. They even gave him his own statue in Kosovo. Kinda like Batman.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Our country is and always has been a great and good nation. But the best is yet to come if we all do our parts. Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you. (95.1-5)

    It's merely pro forma to end a State of the Union with "God Bless the United States of America." In spite of the tradition of separating church and state, shows of religiosity are common in modern politics, especially for presidents, who want to portray themselves as Good Guys.

    Blessings encourage the viewer to think the President is acting in "good faith." (Pun very much intended.)

    Modern presidents also tend to conclude with same variation on the sentiment that America is the greatest country of all time. A show of good old-fashioned patriotism not only gets people fired up; it also heads off any critics who say that the country is in bad shape.

    Clinton also adds in his signature forward-thinking approach by promising "the best is yet to come" 95.2). Seriously, he loves talking about the future: the word comes up six times in his speech, and he even uses the cliché of "a brighter future" to describe his deficit plan (15.3-4).

    As for "if we all do our parts," (95.2), that's about as conciliatory as you can get in a year when the government shut down. Clinton is sending a message to his Republican colleagues that governing through stalemate and stonewalling is not the way of the future. Given his move to the center throughout the speech, it's a good way to cap off a call for compromise.

    Overall, after an evening of talking about divisive issues, the ending of the Address tones it down, and wraps things up in a concise fashion, sort of like repeating the melody at the end of a jazz tune. Play us out, Bill!

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    In the era of TV news, the president uses the State of the Union Address to deliver his message to a wide audience—as in, not just the folks in Congress. The speeches tend to be written so that anyone with a TV can understand them easily (yep, even the same people who watched American Gladiators).

    You know how newspapers are written for a fourth grade reading level? That's pretty much the rule for big political speeches, too. Suffice it to say that you won't find very many unfamiliar words or complicated sentences in this speech.

    On the other hand, understanding the State of the Union requires some contextual knowledge about what issues were important on the political scene that year, so it's not going to be like reading a listicle.

    Not to mention, the State of the Union is one of the longer speeches the president gives during the year…no wonder Ruth Bader Ginsberg can't keep her eyes open.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical References

    Richard Nixon (61.2)
    Oklahoma City Bombing (75.2), (85.4)
    Haitian Revolution (69.2)
    Bosnian War (1.3), (71.1)

    Political References

    Pell Grants (37.3)
    The Brady Bill (52.1)
    1994 Crime Bill (50.1)

    References to This Text

    Pop Culture References

    The West Wing January 12, 2000

  • Trivia

    The line "the era of big government is over" originally ended with "but the era of every man for himself must never begin." The speechwriters ended up removing the caveat because they thought it sounded too sexist. Since it was the '90s, maybe they should have just ended it with the gender-neutral "Psych!" (Source)

    An episode of The West Wing has the fictional President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) rehearsing the line "the era of big government is over" while preparing to give the State of the Union. Sheen, whose character was based on Clinton, even got invited to the White House, where he probably got some performance notes from the Big Dog. (Source)

    Bill Clinton holds the record for giving the longest State of the Union Address ever, during the last year of his second term (2000). The never-ending speech, which lasted almost an hour and a half, is said to have inspired Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Source)

    Prior to the 1996 State of the Union, Bill Clinton had met with Newt Gingrich to ask what he wanted to hear during the speech. Gingrich replied with, "Thank you and good night." Prior to taking the podium, Clinton handed the Speaker of the House a personal note. Can you guess what it said? Hint: it was not "What's your number?" (Source)

    Bill Clinton called on the TV industry to implement the "V-Chip," a piece of technology designed to help parents censor inappropriate programs (let's be honest, they were mostly concerned about Baywatch). By the early 2000s, many TVs had V-Chips, but very few parents actually used them. The parents might have been the ones that needed re-programming. (Source)