State of the Union is Obama's Chance to Reset His Presidency

History shows the State of the Union might not be enough to pull Obama out of his slump.


On a personal level, White House aides are weary from the seemingly endless crises of the past year, including the near collapse of the financial industry, the recession, unemployment, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, threats from terrorists that crystallized in the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, and, most recently, the earthquake in Haiti. But White House aides say Obama seems less fazed than nearly anyone around him. When the president and his advisers walked out of an hourlong meeting on Haiti in the Situation Room one evening recently and headed to more deliberations on healthcare and the economy, an aide said the velocity of events seemed very high, requiring nearly constant decision making under crisis conditions. Obama smiled but was stoical. "That's just how we do it," he said matter-of-factly. "That's how we roll."

But can his State of the Union address make much difference? A review of the history of such speeches doesn't give much cause for White House optimism. Overall, the most memorable presidential speeches have not been State of the Union addresses but talks that marked historic occasions such as the inauguration of a new president, as with John F. Kennedy in 1960, or the Battle of Gettysburg, which inspired Abraham Lincoln's famous address in 1863, or Ronald Reagan's speech in 1984 marking the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. "The State of the Union just happens every year, when there may not be much else happening," says Donatelli.

But, even though they were rare, there have been some consequential State of the Union moments. In 1823, James Monroe unveiled the Monroe Doctrine opposing European intervention in the Americas. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt signaled a new era of American leadership when he declared his support for "four freedoms" around the world: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In 1996, Bill Clinton used his State of the Union to pronounce that the "era of big government" was over, buying into a conservative view of Washington.

Yet the fact is that the State of the Union address has become a Washington ritual of pomp and circumstance, sound and sometimes fury, often signifying little or nothing of lasting consequence.

The Constitution requires that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Interpreting this provision, George Washington gave the first State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1790. It was only 1,089 words long and was delivered before both houses of Congress in New York, the nation's capital at the time. He gave a second address on the state of the nation the following year, establishing the precedent of presidents giving annual reports to Congress, in person.

John Adams adhered to Washington's approach, but Thomas Jefferson, the third president, criticized such an annual, personal address as a "speech from the throne." Rejecting the idea as too imperial, he submitted his messages to Congress in writing. Actually, Jefferson's decision was perhaps not as high-minded as he suggested. He was a poor speaker and may not have wanted to embarrass himself with a big public moment that could have opened him up to ridicule.

Between 1801 and 1913, presidents sent yearly reports to Congress in the form of written letters, which contained the president's analysis of the state of the nation and also his policy recommendations. Several of these written messages exceeded 25,000 words.

As the mass media grew in importance, President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 went back to giving messages in the House chamber before a joint session of Congress. He wanted attention for his policies and for what he considered his role as the nation's prime advocate for the people.

From 1913 to 1934, presidents adopted a hybrid approach and delivered their annual messages either orally or in writing. In 1923, expanding the public outreach, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to have his speech broadcast on the radio.