White House

Why the State of the Union Is Always So Effing ‘Strong’

Since Reagan, presidents have said the state of the union is “strong” most years. But can Obama use a different word?

National Journal
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Matt Vasilogambros
Jan. 28, 2014, midnight

The state of our uni­on is awe­some.

That sounds a little off, right? You wouldn’t be wrong, con­sid­er­ing that for the last 30 years, most States of the Uni­on have in­cluded the same phrase in some way or an­oth­er:

Ron­ald Re­agan in 1983: As we gath­er here to­night, the state of our uni­on is strong, but our eco­nomy is troubled.

George H.W. Bush in 1990: Let me say that so long as we re­mem­ber the Amer­ic­an idea, so long as we live up to the Amer­ic­an ideal, the state of the uni­on will re­main sound and strong.

Bill Clin­ton in 1998: Ladies and gen­tle­men, the state of our uni­on is strong.

George W. Bush in 2006: The state of our uni­on is strong, and to­geth­er we will make it stronger.

Barack Obama in 2012: The state of our uni­on will al­ways be strong.

The state of the uni­on is strong, so it seems. That’s the main­stay phrase of most of these speeches — star­ted by Re­agan and so­lid­i­fied by Clin­ton. It’s like Bruce Spring­steen singing Born to Run or Rod­ney Danger­field say­ing, “I don’t get no re­spect.”

“It seems to be­come a thing that has to be uttered or else people will be dis­ap­poin­ted,” says Ben Ya­goda, a journ­al­ism pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Delaware who writes about lan­guage in a New York Times blog.

It is no sur­prise that “strong” be­came the time-tested word of choice. It’s the per­fect, self-evid­ent ad­ject­ive for the oc­ca­sion. It’s an easy choice for any speech­writer who wants the pres­id­ent to come off as con­fid­ent and op­tim­ist­ic.

“It’s health, vig­or­ous, virile,” says Ya­goda, the au­thor of the book How to Not Write Bad. “It has that not-step­ping-down-from-any­one char­ac­ter, yet it’s not ag­gress­ive”¦. It’s not wishy-washy. There’s no room for doubt. No one can ar­gue with it.”

And most im­port­ant: It’s not yet tired. While some can look at the phrase and say it’s purely for­mu­laic and not ex­cit­ing, it hasn’t reached the point of, say, the Beach Boys still singing Surfin’ USA in their 70s.

Now, the pres­id­ent could mix it up and choose a new word like “awe­some” — the ubi­quit­ous feel-good word of the day. The pres­id­ent could also tap some syn­onyms, and say the state of our uni­on is “firm,” “ro­bust,” “ten­a­cious,” “vig­or­ous,” or “sinewy.” It would be an au­da­cious, but highly un­likely move to steer away from “strong,” however.

But is, or was, the United States “strong”? The eco­nomy has not im­proved. Con­gress re­mains di­vided. The ad­min­is­tra­tion is riddled with scan­dals. As Ya­goda notes, “There might come a point where that kind of rhet­or­ic might sound a little bit whist­ling past the grave­yard, protest­ing too much.”

Pres­id­ents, however, don’t have much choice. This level of op­tim­ism is ex­pec­ted, if not de­man­ded, says Richard Vatz, a pro­fess­or of polit­ic­al com­mu­nic­a­tion at Towson Uni­versity. Case in point: Ger­ald Ford’s 1975 State of the Uni­on ad­dress.

“I must say to you that the state of the uni­on is not good,” said the man who took over after the Wa­ter­gate-driv­en resig­na­tion of Richard Nix­on.

This sort of pess­im­ism was not well re­ceived. Neither was Jimmy Carter’s in­fam­ous “mal­aise” speech, al­though it wasn’t a State of the Uni­on ad­dress. Hon­esty is not al­ways the best policy for such speeches. And while it may not be true, “it’s al­ways pos­sible in the State of the Uni­on ad­dress to be op­tim­ist­ic,” says Vatz. “You can al­ways give a pos­it­ive spin on any­thing.”

While Obama has used dif­fer­ent vari­ations of the phrase, say­ing the state of the uni­on is “strong” and “get­ting stronger” and “is stronger,” it’s un­likely he’ll use an­oth­er phrase this week. As Vatz points out, it would just draw need­less at­ten­tion away from his policies.

But if the pres­id­ent does want to change tra­di­tion, might we sug­gest: The state of our uni­on is baller.

This art­icle has been up­dated to cor­rect a quote from Ben Ya­goda.


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