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What kind of country would you like to live in?
That's the question politicians are always trying to answer for you. In the 1996 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton wasn't just talking about what happened the previous year; he was trying to put his own vision of America into the heads of the audience.
Why don't we all have the same vision of America? Values have a lot to do with it. Some Americans value social harmony, and imagine living in an ideal country in which the government uses taxes to pay for healthcare services, education, and welfare entitlements. Others citizens value independence from the government, envisioning an ideal country of low taxes, few government programs, and less restrictions on the economy.
Others—or maybe it's just us at Shmoop—imagine a big library filled with popular history books and all the Swedish Fish we could eat. Different strokes for different folks, we guess.
A textbook moderate Democrat, Bill Clinton argued that the American government should provide broad support to its citizens, but only if they were willing to make contributions to the economy through hard work.
By incorporating "family values" when laying out his vision for America, Bill Clinton's 1996 State of the Union achieved a balance of conservative and liberal rhetoric—with broad appeal to the electorate.
We know that it's annoying whenever somebody says, "there are two types of people…" But in American politics, it's more right than wrong to make that claim.
Elected officials usually govern either with ideology or pragmatism. "Ideologues" (the word sometimes has a negative connotation) are the types who stick to their guns. Pragmatists, on the other hand, balance ideology with flexibility. They're willing to consider doing things that make practical sense, even if they appear ugly on the surface. They tend to be more moderate, mixing conservative and liberal values.
Bill Clinton tried hard to cast himself as a pragmatist in his 1996 State of the Union speech by promising to end big government, but at the same time maintain certain programs. His ideological opponents viewed him as a trickster—and worse, a liar. That's why Bob Dole said that the 1996 election was about following up on promises.
Most historians and journalists consider Bill Clinton a pragmatist, largely because he both governed and ran for office on a balance of conservative and liberal policies and rhetoric.
Bill Clinton depicted his Republican opponents as more extreme and committed to their ideology than him, in an attempt to make himself look like a more sensible and flexible leader.
It goes without saying that the State of the Union is a politicized event. That's why some members of the Supreme Court have taken to skipping it in recent years. The annual speech is an opportunity for the President to use the bully pulpit to support his own political agenda.
Political rhetoric—especially speaking in order to appeal to voters—is one of the most important parts of government, especially in the contemporary world. What you do is often less important than what you say when it comes to running for office. It's hard to actually make people truly agree with you. It's easier to make them think that you agree with them.
Few modern politicians have mastered this art as much as Bill Clinton. In the 1996 State of the Union Address, he was able to remake his political profile in just one conservative-sounding hour of yapping.
The 1996 State of the Union Address was more than an official government event—it was also a Bill Clinton campaign speech.
By declaring, "The era of big government is over," Bill Clinton was trying to bring more conservative-leaning voters into the Democratic Party.
Sometimes you'll hear people say that the government shouldn't legislate morality; in reality, this is whatthe government often does.
Granted, Congress doesn't tell you how late you can stay up or what establishments you can hang out at. But especially in the 1990s, morality played a huge role in political decision-making. Whether it was concern over violence and sex in the media, or a desire to reduce drug use nationwide, the Clintons and their Congressional colleagues weren't staying on the sidelines, morally speaking.
Morality and ethics also play into decision-making about the role of government in the economy. When Clinton talks about how the government should help out working families in the 1996 State of the Union address, he's making an ethical appeal (41.1).
Every politician promises to improve lives and reduce suffering. What could be more moral than that?
In the 1996 State of the Union, Bill Clinton uses pragmatism to justify cuts to government, but morality to justify keeping certain programs.
Republicans and Democrats primarily disagree on which forms of government intervention are ethical.
Many people in the media talk about the question: what is the main difference between America's two major ideologies, or political parties? The problem is, most of these people have an axe to grind, because they agree or disagree with one of the ideologies.
Luckily, we're here to give you both sides of the story.
One of the main differences between Republicans and Democrats is in how they view the concept of "equality." Republicans and conservatives tend to think that simple equality under the law leads to the most freedom; they believe that everyone gets a fair chance at succeeding in life if left to their own devices. Democrats and liberals, on the other hand, believe that you have to take a proactive approach to creating equality. They believe that government needs to use its resources to even the playing field for people who start out at a disadvantage, like the poor.
And this is what Clinton brings up in his 1996 State of the Union address…and what you should not bring up at the Thanksgiving table.
Bill Clinton's 1996 State of the Union depicts a fair society as one in which everyone has the opportunity to advance through hard work.
The speech uses the word "community" thirteen times, reinforcing the theme that, in a free and equal society, people have to be willing to work together. Cue the soft piano music.