Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Echoes of presidents past

In his first State of the Union, Obama spoke of "doubt" and "lost faith," and of America's damaged economy.

U.S. President Barack Obama rests his hands on his text during his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 27, 2010. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

BOSTON — What President Obama was up against and needed to combat in his State of the Union speech was what he called a “deficit of trust and a corrosive doubt” of government and a “lost faith” in our institutions. “No wonder there is so much disappointment out there,” he said.

This, of course, is what depressions and recessions of this magnitude bring about. It was what Franklin Roosevelt was talking about in his first inaugural when he famously said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to turn retreat into advance.”

Roosevelt, in his first State of the Union speech, tried to assure Americans about the economy, saying that “we are definitely in the process of recovery.” But we still had most of the decade left of hard times before World War II brought us out of the depression.

Obama, too, told us that “the worst of the storm has past,” but no one can know whether the measures he spoke of will bring about recovery soon, or much later than everyone hopes.

Given the state of the economy, it was no wonder that foreign affairs came in a distant second place in his speech. He came around to national security and our two wars at about 52 minutes into a 70-minute speech, and spent only about 10 minutes on them.

It was more than Roosevelt had spent on foreign affairs in his first State of the Union, which was only about about three paragraphs, and saying “I cannot, unfortunately, present to you a picture of complete optimism regarding world affairs.”

Roosevelt spoke darkly of “ immediate or future aggression and with it the spending of vast sums on armament and the continued building up of defensive trade barriers prevent any great progress in peace or trade agreements.” Hitler was already in power, but the worst was yet to come.

Obama spoke of gains against Al Qaeda, of troop increases in Afghanistan, and repeated his pledge that “our troops can begin to come home” in July of 2011. It was a pledge that the White House tried to downplay after he first mentioned that deadline in his West Point speech, and it came as a surprise to me that he would want to underline it again in his State of the Union.