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Memorable SOTU Addresses in the Modern Presidency

President Barack Obama delivers the 2011 State of the Union Address to a joint session of the United States Congress.

President Barack Obama delivers the 2011 State of the Union Address to a joint session of the United States Congress. Photo by Lawrence Jackson, PD.

Tonight President Obama will deliver the first State of the Union Address of his second term. As we learned from former presidential speechwriters, under the modern presidency, the objectives of the SOTU are to set the president up for what he is trying to achieve that year, to get a bounce in public approval, to inoculate the public when introducing controversial policies and to generate support for those policies within Congress. Yet, because the SOTU attempts to do so much, it rarely makes history, serving instead as a laundry list with few memorable moments or lines. Thus, the SOTU tends to contribute to the idea that presidents are remembered more for what they do than what they say. Still, the SOTU is valuable since it lays out a president’s objectives and provides a basis by which we might measure his accomplishments. We combed through our archives and offer in this post what we think are the the memorable SOTU addresses in the modern presidency.

In his SOTU address delivered on January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sought to prepare the American public for involvement in World War II. The “Four Freedoms Speech” speech promised to expand freedoms beyond those guaranteed by the Constitution. Most memorable lines:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

In his first SOTU delivered on January 8, 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” and laid out the case for an ambitious package of domestic policies that would become part of the “Great Society.” Most memorable lines:

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.
It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it…
Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the state and the local level and must be supported and directed by state and local efforts.
For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

On January 30, 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered his first SOTU and discussed his many goals for the next four years, including economic growth in the United States and attentiveness to the rising Communist movements in China and Latin America. While Kennedy described the state of the world as one fraught with danger and uncertainty, he expressed great confidence in the commitment of American government, the still-young United Nations, and the notion of American freedom, which he believed would serve as an inspiration during the Cold War. Most memorable lines:

For only with complete dedication by us all to the national interest can we bring our country through the troubled years that lie ahead. Our problems are critical. The tide is unfavorable. The news will be worse before it is better. And while hoping and working for the best, we should prepare ourselves now for the worst.

We cannot escape our dangers--neither must we let them drive us into panic or narrow isolation. In many areas of the world where the balance of power already rests with our adversaries, the forces of freedom are sharply divided.

In his SOTU delivered on January 26, 1982, Ronald Reagan called for a “New Federalism,” advocating less federal spending and more state initiative to solve social and economic problems. The speech is noteworthy as a statement of philosophy of governance, countering decades of government expansion from the New Deal and Great Society. Most memorable lines:

The record is clear, and I believe that history will remember this as an era of American renewal, remember this administration as an administration of change, and remember this Congress as a Congress of destiny…

Together, we not only cut the increase in government spending nearly in half, we brought about the largest tax reductions and the most sweeping changes in our tax structure since the beginning of this century…

Together, after 50 years of taking power away from the hands of the people in their States and local communities, we have started returning power and resources to them…

Together, we have cut the growth of new Federal regulations nearly in half.

Together, we have created an effective Federal strike force to combat waste and fraud in government…

Together we've begun to mobilize the private sector, not to duplicate wasteful and discredited government programs, but to bring thousands of Americans into a volunteer effort to help solve many of America's social problems.

Together we've begun to restore that margin of military safety that ensures peace…

Together we have made a New Beginning, but we have only begun.

After failing to achieve major healthcare reform, President Bill Clinton famously declared in his January 23, 1996 SOTU that the “era of big government is over.” The speech also sought to lay out the themes of his reelection campaign that year, which would focus on education, gun restrictions, welfare reform, and the environment. Most memorable lines:  

We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there's not a program for every problem. We know, and we have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. The era of big government is over. But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.

In his first SOTU address following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush sought to define the parameters of the War on Terror and proliferation, and began to lay out the case for deposing the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In an evocative phrase, Bush famously sought to tie together the regimes in Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” describing them as repressing freedom within their own societies, helping terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction. Most memorable lines:

States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

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