Jack Pitney: Obama’s Speech and Nixon’s Ghost
[John J. Pitney, Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. He writes and teaches about elections, political parties, Congress, and the presidency, and has taught a course about President Nixon.]
There is no escaping Richard M. Nixon. He did so much to shape the politics and policy of the last half-century that every president will end up echoing his words. Take President Obama’s address last night.
The president spoke of reducing dependence on foreign oil through conservation and the use of solar power. According to UCSB’s invaluable database of presidential documents, the first president to make public mention of solar energy was RN. In his 1971 energy message to Congress – the first such presidential message ever – he said:
The sun offers an almost unlimited supply of energy if we can learn to use it economically. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation are currently re-examining their efforts in this area and we expect to give greater attention to solar energy in the future. The key to meeting our twin goals of supplying adequate energy and protecting the environment in the decades ahead will be a balanced and imaginative research and development program.
President Obama decried “the crushing cost of health care” and spoke of people going broke to get well. So did President Nixon in 1972. “Relative affluence is no ultimate protection against health,” he said in a message to Congress. “A single catastrophic illness can wipe out the financial security of almost any family under most present health insurance policies.” He proposed “a comprehensive national health insurance program, in which the public and private sector would join, would guarantee that no American family would have to forego needed medical attention because of inability to pay.”
President Obama called for greater access to higher education. In 1970, President Nixon said:
No element of our national life is more worthy of our attention, our support and our concern than higher education. For no element has greater impact on the careers, the personal growth and the happiness of so many of our citizens. And no element is of greater importance in providing the knowledge and leadership on which the vitality of our democracy and the strength of our economy depends.
President Obama promised an Iraq policy that “responsibly ends this war,” just as RN spoke of “peace with honor” in Vietnam.
Most striking, President Obama emphasized that Americans are not quitters. Quitting was abhorrent to RN, as he said as early as the Checkers speech. And in a 1974 speech, he said: “The American people are not a nation of quitters. We are a nation that will keep fighting on until we succeed.”
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