Trump’s mention of cities was not a particularly positive one. How does his SOTU address compare with past presidents on urban issues? We have the data.
The State of the Cities was dark and scary.
President Donald Trump touched briefly on America’s urban areas in his third State of the Union address Tuesday evening, but only to paint a picture of one of them as a victim of drugs and crime due to lax border security.
“Tens of thousands of innocent Americans are killed by lethal drugs that cross our border and flood into our cities,” Trump said. “The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime, one of the highest in the entire country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities.” Now, he added, “with a powerful barrier in place [to prevent border crossings], El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country.”
The claim has already been debunked and disputed.
Though America’s mayors may not have liked the tone, this was more discussion than U.S. cities have received in a State of the Union address in recent years, based on an analysis of key terms: “city,” cities,” and “urban.” But throughout the full course of American history, discussion of cities and urban policy—both positive and negative—has been a mainstay of State of the Union addresses from George Washington to Donald Trump.
The earliest discussion of American cities comes in George Washington’s 1791 address, when he mentioned the previous year’s agreement to build a new national capital along the Potomac River. “A city has also been laid out agreeably to a plan which will be placed before Congress, and as there is a prospect, favored by the rate of sales which have already taken place, of ample funds for carrying on the necessary public buildings, there is every expectation of their due progress,” Washington told Congress.
But the early republic was overwhelmingly agricultural, and urban policy didn’t get a lot of time in early presidents’ formal messages. When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson discussed cities, it was often to update Congress about recent plagues that had hit the young country’s population centers.
Urban areas became bigger priorities near the end of the 19th Century, as the country’s urban population rose from 5 percent in 1790 to 35 percent in 1890. Turn-of-the-century presidents worried about overcrowding and poverty in America’s cities, and warned repeatedly against the problems that could ensue if too many Americans left their farms. But despite the warnings of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren Harding, urbanization continued unabated. By the 1960s, more than two-thirds of Americans lived in urban areas, and presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon made addressing problems in inner cities a priority in their addresses to Congress.
As the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s faded, urban issues faded from a major issue to a minor one in State of the Union addresses. By the 1990s, whenever President Bill Clinton talked about “inner city” poverty, he always paired it with a mention of poverty in “rural areas” as well.
Aside from regular discussions of mundane topics like post offices and harbor defenses, though, presidents have tended to talk or write about cities in a few discrete ways in their State of the Union addresses.
Securing the cities
Donald Trump wasn’t the first U.S. president to urge protecting America’s cities from outside threats in a State of the Union. He’s not even the first to urge doing it by cracking down on immigration.
In the 19th Century, President Benjamin Harrison said “admission to our country and to the high privileges of its citizenship should be more restricted and more careful”—a change he said would prevent “the spread of infectious diseases” from European cities. (Some of Harrison’s contemporaries, such as President Grover Cleveland, also endorsed quarantine procedures without calling for restricting immigration.)
The more usual refrain in the Gilded Age, however, was to protect America’s cities from foreign attack by building coastal fortresses. Chester Arthur, Cleveland, and Harrison all asked Congress to fund this in their 1883, 1886 and 1889 speeches, as did William McKinley in 1898 and Teddy Roosevelt in 1907.
Similarly, George W. Bush’s 2002 speech, delivered in the early months of the “War on Terror,” warned of terrorist threats to American cities.
More common in State of the Union messages than immigration crackdowns or coastal batteries is a call to revitalize America’s major cities.
“Most of our cities need extensive rebuilding,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Congress in 1945. Dwight Eisenhower asked for funds for “slum clearance and redevelopment” in 1954, and in 1961 used a “historic new approach” to cities that later became infamous for displacing families of color: “urban renewal.”
This approach peaked in the decades that followed. The 1960s saw more mentions by far of America’s cities than any other in American history. John F. Kennedy warned in 1961 that America’s “cities are being engulfed in squalor” and called for “anti-crime, mass transit, and transportation legislation” and “new tools to fight air pollution.” Kennedy also called for the creation of a Department of “Urban Affairs and Housing” in his 1961 address, but got nowhere with Congress—Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson was still asking for one in 1965. (Johnson finally got his Department of Housing and Urban Development.)
Johnson and Richard Nixon both emphasized urban renewal in their State of the Union addresses, but with different tones. As part of his “Great Society,” Johnson called for “a program to rebuild completely, on a scale never before attempted, entire central and slum areas of several of our cities in America” in 1966. Four years later, Nixon mocked “overblown rhetoric during the 60s” calling for a “war on poverty” or a “war on misery.”
“But if there is one area where the word ‘war’ is appropriate, it is in the fight against crime,” Nixon said. “We must declare and win the war against the criminal elements which increasingly threaten our cities, our homes, and our lives.”
Nixon, like Johnson, backed urban renewal programs in his speeches, including efforts to combat pollution—though no president since Johnson has used the phrase “urban renewal.” President Jimmy Carter went further, urging “a long-term and continuing effort to meet stubborn problems and changing needs,” while Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush emphasized creating “enterprise zones” in particularly hard-hit urban areas.
Trump has called for revitalizing urban areas, too, such as in his 2017 åddress when he promised that “our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity.”
In 2012, Barack Obama talked about “the deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street,” part of a long line of presidents worrying about city-country relations in their State of the Union addresses.
Harry Truman, for example, criticized “voices which foster fear and suspicion and intolerance and hate”—setting “race against race” and “worker against employer,” but also “farmer against city-dweller,” echoing a call for urban-rural understanding eight years earlier by Franklin Roosevelt.
Presidents at the beginning of the 20th Century were less worried about city folk and country folk getting along and more worried about how many city folk there were.
“We are not breeding in proportionate numbers a race of independent and independence-loving landowners, for a lack of which no growth of cities can compensate,” William Howard Taft warned in 1912; the man who beat him, Woodrow Wilson, expressed similar thoughts in 1913.
Moralizing about cities
The growth of American cities was sparking alarm well before the 1910s. Martin van Buren, for example, used his 1839 State of the Union message to bemoan the pernicious influence of big-city banks, which he said held the entire country’s economy at their mercy.
Grover Cleveland warned Congress about how “the wealth and luxury of our cities mingled with poverty and wretchedness and unremunerative toil,” and Teddy Roosevelt said the country “should not permit overcrowding in cities.”
Echoing earlier messages by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Harrison and other late 19th Century presidents worried that cities were vulnerable to “the spread of infectious diseases.”
As American cities grew, presidents became less likely to bash them wholesale in their speeches. But moral critiques of city living stuck around, such as George H.W. Bush’s 1992 assertion that “the major cause of the problems of the cities is the dissolution of the family.”
Improving the capital
One city has received constant attention in State of the Union addresses: Washington, D.C., which the Constitution gives Congress authority over. In 1800, John Adams gave the first State of the Union in the District of Columbia. He optimistically hoped “that piety and virtue, that wisdom and magnanimity, that constancy and self-government” would “flourish forever.”
More common, however, were discrete city-building concerns. James Monroe talked in 1824 of building canals, Millard Fillmore in 1852 of replacing flood-destroyed Potomac bridges, and Chester Arthur in 1881 of draining marshes. A sarcastic John Tyler in 1841 wondered, “considering that this city is the residence of the Government and for a large part of the year of Congress,” whether it was “not unreasonable that Congress should contribute toward the expense of an efficient police.”
In the early 20th Century, presidents trumpeted “an ambitious building program for the city of Washington,” in the words of Calvin Coolidge, who waxed poetic about making D.C. “the art center of the world.”
“If our country wishes to compete with others, let it not be in the support of armaments but in the making of a beautiful capital city,” Coolidge said. “Let it express the soul of America. Whenever an American is at the seat of his Government, however traveled and cultured he may be, he ought to find a city of stately proportion, symmetrically laid out and adorned with the best that there is in architecture, which would arouse his imagination and stir his patriotic pride.”
But D.C. residents have been pressing Congress for more political rights for more than a century, too. In 1912, Taft dismissed the “considerable agitation in Washington in favor of granting the citizens of the city the franchise” that he said arose “from time to time.” Sixty years later, Nixon bragged about signing a new “home rule” to give Washington a popularly elected city council and mayor. In 1980, Carter touted the “close cooperation between my administration and that of Mayor [Marion] Barry,” and urged the states to ratify a constitutional amendment granting D.C. representation in Congress. They didn’t.