When President Obama takes to the speaker’s rostrum on the floor of the House of Representatives Tuesday evening, you can expect him to speak for more than an hour. But don’t bet on him saying anything you’ll remember a month later.
Don’t blame his speechwriters, though. Blame the occasion. It is the fate of all presidents that this speech is not just the longest one that they will deliver all year; it is also the most forgettable. Obama’s address will be the 222nd State of the Union message delivered by a president, and the 80th given in person as a speech, according to the Congressional Research Service. But only a handful are remembered today.
Unfortunately for Obama, none of his first three efforts is included in that handful. On those occasions, the president uttered a combined 21,639 words, taking a total of three hours and 16 minutes. But the only words that lingered more than a nanosecond came in 2011 when he declared, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
Perhaps what is best remembered from his three State of the Union addresses was the moment in 2010 when he confronted the Supreme Court. With six of the justices sitting just feet in front of him, the president—“with all due deference to separation of powers”—blasted the Court for a decision on campaign finance that he contended “will open the floodgates for special interests.” The words themselves were not nearly as memorable as the scene, as Justice Samuel Alito, obviously irritated by what some later called a breach of decorum on the part of the president, mouthed the words “not true.”
The rest of Obama’s addresses are a blur of references to innovation, infrastructure, tax reform, clean energy, college loans, high-speed rail, doubled exports, jobs bills, tax increases for the rich, small-business tax credits, financial reform, college tuition, jobs, and home refinancing. Add in ritual calls for cooperation between the parties and healthy doses of foreign policy, and you’ve got an Obama State of the Union.
Luckily for Obama, it is better for a State of the Union to be forgotten because of its blandness than remembered for its controversy. George W. Bush needed years to explain away the most famous 16 words he used in one of his seven annual addresses. In 2003, he declared, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Those words, used in part as pretext for war, turned out not to be true and triggered an investigation that resulted in Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff being convicted of perjury.
Historians have also noted the bellicose tone of John Kennedy’s remarks in 1961 just 10 days after taking office. He grimly complained that “the relentless pressures of the Chinese Communists menace the security” of South Vietnam, India, and Laos and warned that Communists had “established a base on Cuba, only 90 miles from our shores”—foreshadowing the Bay of Pigs disaster just three months later.
The State of the Union, required by the Constitution, was delivered as a speech by Presidents George Washington and John Adams. But Thomas Jefferson thought it seemed too much like “a speech from the throne” and he submitted it in writing. That practice was followed by all presidents until Woodrow Wilson in 1913 resumed Washington’s practice of giving a speech.
Historically, only five of these reports stand out, including two that were written. Washington in 1790 set the precedent. James Monroe in 1823 declared the policy that came to be known as the “Monroe Doctrine.” Abraham Lincoln in 1862 linked the cause of the Union with the need to abolish slavery. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 delivered the most memorable oral address in the dual shadows of war and depression. He outlined what he called “four essential freedoms”: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The fifth important address came 23 years later, in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson used his first State of the Union to assert, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”
Since then, only two State of the Union addresses have included phrases still easily remembered. In 1996, Bill Clinton declared, “The era of big government is over.” And in 2002, Bush set his sights on regimes in North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, labeling them “an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
Now, Obama has his fourth chance to etch his words in the history books—for better or for worse.
This article appears in the Feb. 12, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Obama’s Speech: Better Off Safe Than Sorry.