5 Presidential State of the Union Promises That Flopped

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There may not be a more predictable event in American politics than the president’s annual State of the Union Address. No matter who is in office, Democrat or Republican, these annual political spectacles always unfold in much the same fashion: The president enters the House of Representatives chamber, spends what seems like eons greeting well-wishers, then launches into a speech full of political dreams for his party and agenda. Members of the president’s political party frequently interrupt in wild applause, while members of the opposing party mostly sit in silence, applauding when they must, but generally looking uncomfortable. And by the end of the address, the president has mentioned plenty of grand policy initiatives that sometimes become reality, but as often as not fail. Here are a few State of the Union promises or concepts that flopped.

The U.S. Constitution called for the president to report on the state of the union from time to time.

President Barack Obama delivers his 2011 State of the Union Address. Credit: Chuck Kennedy

5. Nixon Vows to End U.S. Dependence on Foreign Oil (1974)

You could say that President Richard Nixon had a lot of pressing concerns on his mind — that inconvenient little scandal known as Watergate — when he vowed in his 1974 State of the Union Address to make the United States self-sufficient in energy: “Let this be our national goal: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving.” Today, the U.S. is closer to that goal than at any time in the past 40 years, but it’s not there yet. It certainly didn’t happen by 1980.

4. Johnson Eyes Quick End to Vietnam War (1969)

At the very peak of the Vietnam War in 1969, President Lyndon B. Johnson mentioned ongoing peace talks in Paris as offering hope for a quick end to the conflict. But he vowed the North Vietnamese would not prevail: “The North Vietnamese know that they cannot achieve their aggressive purposes by force. There may be hard fighting before a settlement is reached; but, I can assure you, it will yield no victory to the Communist cause.” America’s involvement in the war dragged on another six years, and North Vietnam ultimately prevailed. Of course, you could find similarly rosy projections by other presidents during wartime, and rightfully so; would Americans ever really want to hear they’re in a war they can’t win? Sometimes a little cheerleading is in order in times of crisis.

3. Roosevelt Predicts End to Great Depression (1936)

In 31 words, the U.S. Constitution set forth the precedent for the annual State of the Union Address: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;” (Article II, Section 3). George Washington gave the first such message in 1790 (and at only 1,089 words, it remains the shortest in history, a record that will likely stand forever). For more than 100 years, State of the Union messages were written and delivered to Congress. Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the modern-day tradition of delivering an annual State of the Union Address in 1934. FDR’s Depression-era addresses were filled with reassuring words for his fellow citizens, even if his projections were sometimes way off. In his 1936 address, Roosevelt noted a slight uptick in the economy, and said, as “National income increases; employment increases. Therefore, we can look forward to a reduction in the number of those citizens who are in need.” Unfortunately, the unemployment rate jumped sharply in the three years after FDR’s prediction; in 1938, the average unemployment rate stood at 19 percent.

2. Carter Vows to Fight Government Bureaucracy (1979)

Pop quiz: Which U.S. president from the 1980s said this about the role of the federal government: “America has the greatest economic system in the world. Let’s reduce government interference and give it a chance to work.”

If you said Ronald Reagan, good guess; that seems reasonable, given Reagan’s well-known dislike for government bureaucracy. But that quote actually came from President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 State of the Union Address. Citing the success of the deregulation of the airline industry the previous year, Carter said he wanted to target federal regulation in other areas, including the railroad, bus, and the trucking industries. While Carter successfully pushed deregulation of those industries, he hardly reined in big government; Carter will be remembered for, among other things, creating massive government agencies in the Department of Energy and Department of Education.

1. George W. Bush: Americans Can be Confident About the Economy (2008)

Very early in his 2008 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush talked about some troubling economic signs, including a dip in the housing market. But he assured Americans that, “In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth.” Of course, a few months later, the housing bubble burst, the stock market collapsed and the United States entered its worst recession since the Great Depression.


Here are two great resources on the history of the State of the Union Address:

The American Presidency Project at UCSB

The U.S. House of Representatives


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