Study Guide

1996 State of the Union Address Quotes

By William Clinton

  • Visions of America

    Self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; we must have both. (8.2)

    By "self-reliance" he means less government help and by "teamwork" he means people working together, even when the law doesn't say they have to. When you're imagining the perfect America, sometimes it's tempting to look to the better angels of human nature.

    We should…make permanent deficits yesterday's legacy. (15.5)

    This vision for America didn't outlive the Clinton presidency. Deficits are currently pretty crazy-big. But some argue that this is okay. After all, should the government really spend less than it earns through taxes?

    Family is the foundation of American life. If we have stronger families, we will have a stronger America. (17.3-4)

    This sounds like one of those black and white commercials from the fifties. For many people, "the American dream" still means a spouse, 2.5 kids, a house, and a golden retriever. What do you think? Is family still the foundation?

    I challenge people on welfare to make the most of this opportunity for independence. I challenge American businesses to give people on welfare the chance to move into the work force. (27.4-5)

    Here, Bill Clinton envisions people using welfare to further their ambitions and pull themselves out of difficult situations. The quote posits welfare as a way to ultimately get people to work harder.

    When companies and workers work as a team they do better, and so does America. (48.3)

    That's a nice sentiment. Clinton is encouraging companies to have a relationship with their employees, and to be motivated by the common good of both parties. In other words, the opposite of Office Space.

  • Pragmatism

    These cuts are real. They will require sacrifice from everyone. But these cuts do not undermine our fundamental obligations to our parents, our children, and our future. (13.1-3)

    Sometimes politicians talk about needing to "tighten our belts" in order to cut government spending. You'd think they were starving artists.

    I am ready to meet tomorrow. But I ask you to consider that we should at least enact these savings that both plans have in common and give the American people their balanced budget, a tax cut, lower interest rates, and a brighter future. (15.3-4)

    Compromise and finding common ground are staples of the pragmatic approach to governing. When running for office in primaries, or intra-party races, highly ideological candidates sometimes criticize their opponents for "meeting with the other side."

    In the past 3 years, we've saved $15 billion just by fighting health care fraud and abuse. (46.2)

    Many pragmatists in both political parties believe that eliminating fraud, waste, and corruption in government will reduce expenses more than eliminating actual programs. It's sort of like saying, "Work smarter, not harder." Or, "Work less corruptly."

    Violent crime is coming down all across America. In New York City, murders are down 25 percent; in St. Louis, 18 percent; in Seattle, 32 percent. But we still have a long way to go before our streets are safe and our people are free from fear. (49.4-6)

    The Big Dog loves to throw down the statistics. Sometimes the best political argument is to point your finger at some numbers and say, "Hey, whatever it is, it's working."

    As we move into the era of balanced budgets and smaller Government, we must work in new ways to enable people to make the most of their own lives. We are helping America's communities, not with more bureaucracy but with more opportunities. (81.1-2)

    "We must work in new ways" is code for what people in the 2010s call "innovation." Even though he ran in 1992 as more of a big government liberal, Clinton pivoted right in 1996. He innovated on his own image.

  • Politics

    The era of big government is over. But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves. (7.5-6)

    At the time, this was the political equivalent of a twist. Wait, a Democrat suddenly wants to kill off big government? That's more insane than the plot of Westworld.

    I have learned a lot about the way both Republicans and Democrats view the debate before us. I have learned a lot about the good ideas that each side has that we could all embrace. (14.2-3)

    Trying to appeal to both sides is called being "bipartisan." Politics are generally so divided "along party lines," as the saying goes, that someone who takes ideas from both groups needs an entire word to describe them.

    I challenge this Congress to send me a bipartisan welfare reform bill that will really move people from welfare to work and do the right thing by our children. I will sign it immediately. (26.1-2)

    A classic workplace tactic is to shift responsibility to your colleagues. Challenging Congress to make the first move makes the president look better in comparison. Clinton is saying, "Guys, help me out here…I'm waaiiting."

    Yet Congress has voted to cut environmental enforcement by 25 percent. That means more toxic chemicals in our water, more smog in our air, more pesticides in our food. Lobbyists for polluters have been allowed to write their own loopholes into bills to weaken laws that protect the health and safety of our children. (60.1-3)

    Another key part of political rhetoric is framing an issue the way you want it. Clinton is presenting environmental protection cuts as a health risk for average people. The Republicans would argue that such cuts reduce government interference and protect industries. It's two sides of the same toxic waste dump…er, coin.

    Now I challenge Congress to go further, to curb special interest influence in politics by passing the first truly bipartisan campaign finance reform bill in a generation. (78.1)

    Politics are, for better or worse (actually, it's probably for worse) pretty synonymous with "money." It costs so much to run for office that you need to be wealthy, or have wealthy donors.

  • Morality and Ethics

    To the media, I say you should create movies and CD's and television shows you'd want your own children and grandchildren to enjoy. (20.1)

    After '90s kids started listening to groups like N.W.A. and watching movies made by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, parents were freaking out. Since parents are the ones who generally vote in elections, it was a smart political strategy to attack the media on the basis of morals.

    I say to those who make and market cigarettes, every year a million children take up smoking, even though it's against the law. Three hundred thousand of them will have their lives shortened as a result. (24.1-2)

    Once again, if you want to convince people to do something using moral and ethical arguments, just bring up children.

    I applaud the work of religious groups and others who care for the poor. More than anyone else in our society, they know the true difficulty of the task before us, and they are in a position to help. Every one of us should join them. (27.6-7)

    Liberal-leaning commentators often suggest that the government has a moral responsibility to help people in need. Conservatives tend to reply that churches and other religious and community groups are the ones who should be our moral protectors, not elected officials.

    Finally, if our working families are going to succeed in the new economy, they must be able to buy health insurance policies that they do not lose when they change jobs or when someone in their family gets sick. (45.1)

    Healthcare is one of the most contentious debates in politics. Some people think that it's immoral not to "take care" of the sick, while others think that government-run healthcare would be a much bigger moral (and practical) problem. Sometimes this debate leads to moments like this.

    The challenge begins in our homes, with parents talking to their children openly and firmly. It embraces our churches and synagogues, our youth groups and our schools. I challenge Congress not to cut our support for drug-free schools. (57.3-4)

    A call to fight the spread of drugs, from the guy who once said "I did not inhale." Clinton is going for the moral double-tap with references to religious groups and an anti-drug stance. Nowadays, many Democrats argue for relaxing drug laws, especially on marijuana. We've come a green mile.

  • Equality

    While more Americans are living better, too many of our fellow citizens are working harder just to keep up, and they are rightly concerned about the security of their families. (5.5)

    Clinton suggests that hard work might not be enough in the new economy of the '90s (lol to that phrase). To make sure everyone has a fair shot, he thinks the government needs to adopt the right policy.

    How do we make the American dream of opportunity for all a reality for all Americans who are willing to work for it? (6.2)

    In many countries, especially ones that lean toward socialism, welfare and other government programs are guaranteed to every citizen, regardless of what they do. In America, that doesn't quite fly: if you want it, most politicians say you have to earn it.

    I challenge America's families to work harder to stay together. For families who stay together not only do better economically, their children do better as well. (29.3-4)

    The subtext here: a difficult family situation can make it much harder for people to compete in the economy, especially impressionable children. Democrats tend to think that the government needs to lift people out of situations that seem rigged against them.

    In 1993, Congress cut the taxes of 15 million hard-pressed working families to make sure that no parents who work full time would have to raise their children in poverty and to encourage people to move from welfare to work. (41.1)

    Critics of the welfare system submit that it creates a disincentive for work, and encourages people to sit back on their haunches.

    Our fourth great challenge is to take our streets back from crime and gangs and drugs. (49.1)

    For many Republicans and conservatives, being safe and secure is the most important aspect of a society that is fair to everyone. As a result, these groups tend to be very in favor of "law and order" policies, like increasing police resources, as well as strengthening the military.