WASHINGTON -- In 1996, President Bill Clinton went before the nation and shamed congressional Republicans for shutting down the government. It was his first State of the Union address after two shutdowns that closed the federal government for 28 days, and he made sure GOP lawmakers would regret what they did.
But on Tuesday, in his first State of the Union speech since the 16-day shutdown in October, President Barack Obama took a very different approach. He made only a passing reference to the government shutdown and never pointed the finger directly at anyone.
"For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government," said Obama near the beginning of his address. "It's an important debate -- one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy -- when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States -- then we are not doing right by the American people."
On Jan. 23, 1996, in contrast, sitting in the first lady's box was Richard Dean, a heroic Social Security Administration employee and Vietnam War veteran who risked his life to save others during the Oklahoma City bombing. Clinton honored his service, and the entire chamber applauded him.
But then Clinton delivered his kicker: Dean had been furloughed during the government shutdown. Clinton then called on Congress to keep the government open from now on, receiving loud cheers from Democrats and an uncomfortable House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), sitting on the podium awkwardly:
But Richard Dean's story doesn't end there. This last November, he was forced out of his office when the government shut down. And the second time the government shut down he continued helping Social Security recipients, but he was working without pay.
On behalf of Richard Dean and his family, and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this chamber: Never, ever shut the federal government down again.
News outlets declared Clinton's speech a winner, saying Republicans had been "sandbagged" by the president. Even then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) realized what had happened and was reportedly "raging" at his television set when he went home and rewatched the president's address that night. As Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler -- who covered the shutdowns in the 1990s -- noted in 2011, "After that, Clinton never lagged in the polls again."
As in 1996, in the immediate aftermath of the most recent government shutdown, the public placed the brunt of the blame for closing the government on congressional Republicans, not the president. But this time around, the political fallout was short-lived, as Republicans successfully switched the conversation to flaws in HealthCare.gov and moved attention away from what happened during the shutdown.
Obama, too, appeared to move beyond it on Tuesday, instead emphasizing the bipartisan work Congress has done lately.
"Last month, thanks to the work of Democrats and Republicans, this Congress finally produced a budget that undoes some of last year's severe cuts to priorities like education," he said. "Nobody got everything they wanted, and we can still do more to invest in this country's future while bringing down our deficit in a balanced way. But the budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rep. Tom DeLay as House speaker in 1996. He was the House majority whip at the time.