Study Guide

1996 State of the Union Address Themes

By William Clinton

  • Visions of America

    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.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. After reading the 1996 State of the Union, how would you describe Bill Clinton's vision for America?
    2. Does Bill Clinton's vision for America put more of an emphasis on families, communities, and citizens, or on government policies?
    3. Do you agree with Bill Clinton's vision for America? What parts of his vision are different from yours?
    4. Imagine the perfect presidential candidate for you, if you were voting in the year 1996. Where would he or she stand on the various issues that Bill Clinton brings up in the 1996 State of the Union?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Pragmatism

    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.

    Questions About Pragmatism

    1. After reading the 1996 State of the Union, do you think Bill Clinton was motivated primarily by ideology or pragmatism?
    2. Politicians (Clinton among them) often get accused of "flip-flopping" when they change their position to fit new events. Do you think this is fair? When should a politician change his or her mind on an issue?
    3. Although the practical solution to many political issues might involve pragmatism, modern politicians mostly debate ideology when running for office. Why do you think that is?
    4. Take a look in the mirror. When it comes to making decisions in your own life, or when you vote, are you a pragmatist or an ideologue?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Politics

    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.

    Questions About Politics

    1. What kind of voters do you think Bill Clinton was most targeting in the 1996 State of the Union? Congress? Conservative or liberal? Young people or old? Rich or poor?
    2. The speech does not reference the 1996 elections, nor the 1994 midterm elections. Why do you think Bill Clinton avoided talking about these events?
    3. Throughout the entire speech, Clinton avoids saying the words "conservative" or "liberal." Why do you think he avoids talking about ideology explicitly?
    4. Some countries have political systems in which single-issue parties exist. Do you think that politics should mostly be about individual issues, or identity as part of a group?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Morality and Ethics

    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?

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Clinton dedicated a significant amount of time in the 1996 State of the Union to addressing the media. How much should the government regulate the content of the media?
    2. Should the government create tax policies that are more favorable to families, or individuals? Why might a president choose one over the other?
    3. Do you think it is ethical to levy taxes in order to pay for government programs like Medicaid and Social Security? Why or why not?
    4. What moral responsibilities does the government have to its citizens? List three (or, if you can't come up with three, explain why).

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Equality

    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.

    Questions About Equality

    1. How would you define "equality?" What makes people equal to each other? What makes them potentially unequal in practice, if not under the law?
    2. The welfare system, as instituted under Franklin Roosevelt, was designed to give Americans greater economic security. Do you consider economic security part of being "free?"
    3. Do you believe that anyone who works hard can "get ahead?" Do you believe, as Clinton states in the speech, that people who work hard are entitled to certain benefits?
    4. What would a truly "equal" country look like? Imagine its economic, political, and cultural characteristics.

    Chew on This

    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.

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