A State Of The Union In Three Forms

Depending on when you’re reading this, POTUS 46 will either be delivering the speech on Tuesday, March 1 or has already done so. Regardless, I’d like to share briefly three examples to help you gauge and measure our current moment under broadly similar conditions.

The examples fit around a set of criteria. 1) a major European war is happening; 2) Americans know it, with a meaningful percentage of the population seeking some sort of reaction; 3) the President is on schedule to offer customary formal remarks to Congress, covering the prior year; and 4) the President is still somewhat early in a first term of office.

The examples: John Adams in December 1797; Woodrow Wilson in December 1914; and Bill Clinton in January 1994.


He wrote (no oral speech, but a written message to be read aloud) that Americans should be thankful at last that the recent national outbreak of yellow fever had finally gone away. He added that Congress should consider some sort of new regulation for dealing with travel in a future epidemic.

Getting to the heart of his speech, Adams declared that a new sense of national honor was clearly evident. This was the product of the European war between France and England with both sides displaying hostility and disrespect toward the United States. Adams proposed the funding and construction of a robust and vigorous US Navy. He stated that the best way to ensure peace was to prepare for war.

Adams concluded his speech with a reference to secure borders and border regions, the actual existence of a stable national budget, and the potential need to protect those businesses who depended on ocean- and sea-going transport in the current climate of European war. These businesses were critical to the nation’s economy, he affirmed. In all these issues, Adams implies an interweaving of the European war with other ongoing concerns of the American nation.


Communicating in his Annual Message via written remarks as Adams had done 117 years earlier, Wilson wrote that the six-month-old “Great War” on the European continent had caused Americans to look to the future instead of the past. Wilson announced that his domestic legislation—sweeping and nation-changing—was done for the present moment, it was past. The only thing left to do, he suggested, was to watch for results. As for the future, the war pointed forward in time, the war that Wilson asserted was causing Americans to think about the paths which lay ahead of them.

The future Wilson saw included a greater offering of freedom to two critical American territories. The Philippines should have more self-government, he said, while the Territory of Alaska should have its coastline enhanced and improved to allow for more movement of commercial traffic. In discussing the nation’s boundaries, Wilson further sought an end to national turmoil and disruption south of the United States, specifically, Mexico.

Wilson pivoted back to his domestic program and defended the idea that Americans wanted stronger government, more active and meaningful in their lives. He contrasted this idea with the presence of the Great War, which had started in the Balkans and spread across the continent. Wilson argued that the United States was the friend of all nations, including those at war. He said Americans would never allow a large standing army, an extensive professional military, and would instead choose to train every citizen in the use of firearms to make for a ready national defense.

Wilson challenged Americans not to be thrown off-balance and not to be, as he put it, “misinformed.” He wanted Americans to stay true to themselves, avoiding war abroad and recognizing the nation was an example to the entire world.


Clinton maintained the newer tradition of making an actual speech to Congess near the start of the calendar year. Clinton preferred to devote his time to a lengthy explanation of specific domestic programs either enacted or proposed. The list was exhaustive and on occasion involved detail and description. Though rooted behind a podium, the president roamed far as guide of a verbal tour of his domestic plans.

The war raging in southern Europe had no name in his speech, made no appearance. On the basis of his speech by itself, an audience learned nothing about real warfare on the ground in the Balkan region with thousands homeless, thousands bloodied, thousands dead.

Clinton glossed the topic with terms of existing partnerships, potential partnerships, and yet-to-be conceived partnerships. NATO appeared once in a sentence, exactly the same number of times that the phrase non-NATO did. The language that felt most tenuous in the entire speech, the most penciled-in and sticky-noted, pertained to disorder in Europe. “We should continue it” was the feeble call for American involvement to curtail disorder on one hand, while “I told them that the security of their region is important for our country’s security” was the flat explanation of American commitment on the other. In a speech conspicuous for itemization and check-boxing, the president offered a casual wave toward warfare in Europe.

Clinton’s references to the American military had the same flavor. He spoke briefly about the armed forces, stating that last year’s sharp cuts in funding had been bone-deep and should go no further. He emphasized law enforcement and criminal violence in the United States more than the military and the conflict in southern Europe.

The Things For You To Consider Now As Measurements

First, POTUS will need a clear motivation for involvement that can stand on its own and shove its way up the priority list of issues and plans. It must be so significant and substantial as to be resistant to attempts at pulling it off-stage. Unless such a stand-alone force exists, POTUS will follow rather than lead and will prefer the nation stays in the wings.

Second, the state of the American military will be touched upon. The context of the remarks will say much about the nation’s standing in the European conflict, be it a visible advantage or a quiet disadvantage.

Third, distance is a vital factor but not in the obvious form of miles and physical space. The more telling invocation of distance is that which marks the separation between a) the declared fundamental purpose of POTUS’s sense of the nation AND b) its connection to the European situation. If the distance is small, meaning that presidential purpose and war proximity line up side-by-side, POTUS will be open to American involvement. If not, POTUS will again be stationed well behind a leadership stance and will revert to followership.

Fourth, pungent phrasing used in discussing the European situation will indicate a willingness to consider deeper involvement. The less arresting the wording, the less likelihood of American participation. Pungent phrasing may also heighten the prospects of potential clarity in POTUS’s outlook on the European war. Clever wording isn’t enough; pungent is a must. Communication must be true, concise, and powerful.

Fifth, the proportion of devoted time and space (about the war) in the speech and the placement of the topic (about the war) within the sequence and hierarchy of the speech are indicators of the momentum of intent. A greater proportion and higher placement will point to real emphasis on the issue by POTUS.

Adams and the final thought

You’ve probably noticed that of the three POTUSes cited, John Adams is the closest in tone and substance to the situation unfolding in 2022 in Ukraine. He is specific about a new change in the American military (the Navy). He links the mood and public environment to trends on the ground (national honor). He perceives the intricate balance between risk and reality (both France and Great Britain are hostile to the US but the American nation must not isolate from Europe). He defines national interests that are part of the moment (existence of the young nation). Adams is an stellar example of presidential leadership in a situation like ours with Ukraine in 2022.

Notice that two of the three POTUSes hold the office when the nation is not a formal superpower. Notice that the POTUS with the longest travel time between Europe and America is the one who most firmly connects the American nation to the European crisis. Notice that a key filter is the nation and how it receives, perceives, and processes the situation east across the Atlantic Ocean. Notice that each POTUS serves in a period that is relatively soon after a prior war (Revolutionary War for Adams, Spanish-American War for Wilson, Gulf War I for Clinton). And each POTUS sits at a unique juncture as head of state and commander-in-chief under the Constitution.

Thanks for reading.