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State of the Union address: best and worst in history

The State of the Union address is a big moment for a president, but not usually a memorable one for the public. Americans are more likely to remember Gabrielle Giffords at tonight's speech than anything Obama says. Still, the speech has had its high points, and low ones.

By Ray Smock / January 24, 2012

President Barack Obama makes a point during his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill on Jan. 25, 2011. This is an election year, adding to the pressure for a memorable speech.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool/File


Shepherdstown, W. Va.

After President Obama delivers his State of the Union address this evening, will Americans recall what he said?

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The address is high political drama and marks one of the biggest nights of the year for the president, especially in a campaign year.

It is a command performance, mandated by the Constitution. It is also a tightrope act balancing the formal constitutional requirements with the strong desire to use this popular venue as a bully pulpit – to Congress, the American people, and the world.

Yet as the speech has evolved over the years, only a few memorable phrases and ideas have survived in the public consciousness. This is a result of the nature of this address, which traditionally has been more about reporting on administrative achievements and proposals the president plans to lay before Congress in the coming year.

Reaching back in American history, James Monroe in his 1823 annual message called for foreign powers to stay out of the western hemisphere, which became known as the Monroe Doctrine.

Lyndon Johnson first used the term “war on poverty” in his 1964 address. In George W. Bush’s 2003 address he included just 16 words on the topic of Saddam Hussein receiving shipments of uranium from Africa. Within months the US was at war with Iraq.

My picks for the worst and best personal results from a State of the Union message go to Grover Cleveland and Bill Clinton.

The worst outcome goes to Cleveland’s 1887 message, which, in those days was not delivered in person, but sent to Congress in writing. Instead of the usual list of administrative details, Cleveland used his message to outline plans for massive tariff reform. This plan so surprised and upset members of his Democratic Party that they split, leading to Cleveland’s defeat in 1888.

The finest personal hour for a State of the Union Address had nothing to do with the content of the speech, and everything to do with the circumstances surrounding the address and the public perception of the president’s performance.

On Jan. 19, 1999, on the very day that President Bill Clinton’s attorney opened the president’s impeachment defense in the Senate, Clinton came before Congress and delivered a cool and collected hour-long speech that made no mention whatsoever of his impeachment trial then dominating the news.

The goal of his speech and his performance was to demonstrate to the nation that despite his impeachment, he was still president and still conducting the nation’s business. Republicans and Democrats alike were impressed with this performance under extreme pressure.


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