Top 5 Presidential Pep Talks for Tough Economic Times

State of the Union Addresses: A Formula of Empathy and Resolve

ByDevin Dwyer and Lindsey Ellerson
January 26, 2010, 10:13 AM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2010— -- When President Obama took the stage for his first State of the Union address, he followed in the footsteps of presidents who've used the same pulpit to empathize with Americans'economic hardships and preach optimism for the future.

But just how much the prime time "pep talk" resonnated with everyday Americans is unclear, at a time when the very forum and format of the speech may only compound what the President, in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, called the "feeling of remoteness and detachment" Americans sense from their policymakers.

Despite a year of long-winded political showmanship over health care and the economy, unemployment remains at 10 percent, and more Americans believe the economy is getting worse than getting better, according to the most recent ABC News poll. While the President remains personally popular among Americans, a majority -- 52 percent -- disapprove of his handling of the economy.

Experts say as important as the economic proposals Obama explained in his address will be his continued ability to convince Americans he "feels their pain" and is resolved to cure it.

"It's a tough balancing act," said Robert Lehrman, former White House speechwriter and author of "The Political Speechwriter's Companion."

"One the one hand he has to say to voters who have been disappointed with the process in the last year: 'I understand your frustration, I agree with your frustration.' But on the other hand, he can't say, 'And now I give up.' He can't say, 'I'm going to abandon all my plans.' He'll say, 'I'm going to fight for the things that brought me to the White House.'"

Lehrman says State of the Union addresses follow a predictable, tried-and-true formula that presidents have used for decades.

"The state of the union is not good," President Gerald Ford famously opined in 1975, when millions of Americans were out of work, facing a lingering recession and a growing national debt. "Progress and solutions can be achieved, and they will be achieved," he said.

Five years later, on the heels of one recession and on the eve of another, Jimmy Carter, promised "our challenges are formidable but there's a new spirit of unity and resolve in our country. We move into the 1980s with confidence and hope and a bright vision of the America we want."

And when that bright vision dimmed, Ronald Reagan told the country "in the near future the state of the union and the economy will be better -- much better -- if we summon the strength to continue on the course that we've charted."

That course ultimately led to a resurgence of economic prosperity – and Reagan's approval ratings – by the mid-1980s, and some experts say Obama can learn from Reagan's example in staying the course.

Lehrman, who cites Reagan and Obama as the two best orators of recent memory, says presidential reassurances during tough economic times may only temporarily soothe anxieties and sagging presidential poll numbers -- but it remains important to the national psyche nonetheless.

Five Presidents Who've Promised Economic Prosperity

Virtually every president has in some way taken on the role of "pep-talker-in-chief" – exhorting the nation in soaring language that tough times can be overcome. Here are the top 5 presidential pep talks on the economy from state of the unions in recent memory:

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