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
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.