Study Guide

1996 State of the Union Address Main Idea

By William Clinton

  • Main Idea

    By declaring, "the era of big government is over," Bill Clinton was not announcing total anarchy. Instead, he was simply announcing a major shift for the modern Democratic Party, which formed around the New Deal under president Franky D. Roosevelt.

    Clinton, a moderate Democrat, adopted aspects of conservative politics and rhetoric to his platform. Basically, he was making nice with the conservatives and saying that he'd use some of their ideas. It was the political equivalent of getting a pizza that's half Meat Lover's and half vegan.

    Some of his ideas were policy-centric: for example, he promised welfare reform that would move people back into the workforce with "time limits [and] tough work requirements" (25.4) Other stances were more style than substance, such as professing the belief that the family is the foundation of American life (17.2).

    Overall, Clinton's new-look centrist politics helped him win reelection in 1996. He talked the talk…and won the walk.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. From what you know of politics, which parts of the 1996 State of the Union seem closer to what Democrats believe today? Which parts seem closer to what Republicans believe?
    2. Why might Bill Clinton have chosen to focus on family during a significant portion of his speech?
    3. Why do you think Democrats and Republicans disagree over the role of government in the economy and in citizens' personal lives?

    Chew on This

    In his 1996 State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton unleashed a laundry list of conservative ideas and rhetoric to convince Americans he could work with both of the country's political ideologies, or camps.

    The 1996 State of the Union Address was the last significant example of a President appealing to both parties. After that, divisions between Republicans and Democrats just got deeper and deeper.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    The State of the Union is one of the president's biggest homework assignments. Rain or shine, the Constitution stipulates that he let Congress know what's going on. In election years, it's also a good chance to stump, or campaign.

    The Text

    In modern State of the Union Addresses, the president usually goes down a laundry list of issues that he wants to work on in the upcoming year. 1996 was no exception. In the speech, President Clinton names seven challenging areas for the government to take on across the entire spectrum of domestic and foreign policy. Every issue from school uniforms to toxic waste gets a shout-out.

    Rarely, a State of the Union enters the history books for signaling a major shift in the direction of the country. Bill Clinton's 1996 speech fits this description. When Clinton declared "the era of big government is over," he essentially said that he was willing to start governing as a moderate or conservative…even though he had passed some pretty liberal policies in his first term.

    He also made liberalism sound a little less mainstream. Imagine if Lebron James said "the era of dunking is over," and you have a sense of how surprising it was.

    It was a smart chess move, and it paid off when he won reelection. Clinton's subsequent signing of a welfare reform bill, which he challenged Congress to write during the 1996 State of the Union, reshaped social policy for the next two decades.

    It didn't quite kill the New Deal, but it definitely helped make "big government" (and even sometimes "liberal") dirty words in American politics going forward.

    TL;DR

    Let's work together to improve our government by making it smaller and more efficient…oh, and by the way, vote Bill Clinton in 1996!

      
  • Questions

    1. In this speech, Bill Clinton uses numbering (three questions, seven challenges) as a sign-posting device. What effect does this have on the structure of his speech, and why might it be appropriate for a political forum?
    2. State of the Union speeches are supposed to be the President's report to Congress. Does the tone of this speech seem to be targeted toward other politicians, or a different group?
    3. At one point, Bill Clinton calls family "the foundation of American life" (17.2). Why do you think Clinton focuses so much on family when facing a Congress dominated by his Republican adversaries?
    4. One of Clinton's most frequent rhetorical flourishes is "challenging" Congress to adopt a certain policy. What do you think he is trying to accomplish by putting pressure on Congress? Does he really expect to change their minds on issues during the speech, or does he have another agenda?
    5. How have the issues discussed in the speech changed in today's politics? How have they remained the same?
    6. Clinton talks a lot about the federal deficit and balancing the budget. Do you think the government ought to have a balanced budget, or should it be able to borrow money and go into debt?
    7. Related to the previous question: should there be a ceiling, or limit, on how much the government can borrow, or should it be unlimited?
    8. Do you think the government should use tax money to provide people with more services? What should the government provide, and what should it not provide?
    9. After reading or listening to the entire 1996 State of the Union Address, do you think you would have voted for Bill Clinton in the subsequent election?