President Barack Obama

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press


Obama will deliver his speech at 8 p.m. Twin Cities time on Tuesday. It will be broadcast live on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC as well as cable channels CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. The White House website and major media outlets also will stream the speech live.

Presidents follow Reagan's lead

  • New York Times
  • February 11, 2013 - 9:38 PM

WASHINGTON - President Obama is likely to declare Tuesday evening that the state of the union is strong. That word, strong, has become a ritual element of the annual address to Congress, intoned by Obama and his predecessors over the past 30 years even when things were not going that well.

"The state of our union has never been stronger," President George W. Bush said in January 2002, immediately after reminding Congress that the nation was at war and the economy was in recession.

"Despite our hardships, our union is strong," Obama said in January 2010, after mentioning that the nation was engaged in two wars and that the economy had fallen into an even deeper recession.

Strong, stronger, strongest -- one of those words has been used to describe the union in each of the past 17 State of the Union addresses.

But it was not always so. Presidents once used other words to describe the state of our union. President Jimmy Carter liked to call it "sound." President Harry S. Truman liked to call it "good." President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a lyrical moment, described the state of the union in 1965 as "free and restless, growing and full of hope."

And when things were not going well, they said so.

"I must say to you that the state of the union is not good," President Gerald R. Ford said in 1975, citing high unemployment, slow growth and soaring deficits. He added, "I've got bad news, and I don't expect much, if any, applause."

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said, "The present state of our economy is disturbing," declaring that he spoke in "an hour of national peril and national opportunity."

No president has ever delivered a more dour assessment than Andrew Johnson in 1867, as the nation wrestled with the reconstruction of the Southern states: "Candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us."

What changed? The simple answer is President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan's first official State of the Union address, in 1982, was among the bleaker assessments a president has delivered, although framed with his trademark optimism. The state of the union, he declared, would be getting better.

Reagan first said so in '83

The following year, 1983, he said that it had.

"As we gather here tonight," Reagan told Congress, "the state of our Union is strong."

Anthony R. Dolan, Reagan's chief speechwriter, said he could not recall who suggested the word "strong," but that it was a better choice than "good" or "sound," because "it had just a little bit of a moral quality." Dolan said he also liked the word because it was "qualitative rather than quantitative" -- the union could be strong even if the economy was not.

Reagan used the same word, although never in exactly the same way, in several subsequent years.

But it was President Bill Clinton who made the phrase a modern standard, declaring that "the state of our union is strong" in each annual address from 1996 to 1999. By January 2000, when the economy was booming, he jettisoned all understatement and grandly pronounced: "My fellow Americans, the state of our union is stronger than it has ever been."

David Kusnet, Clinton's chief speechwriter during his early years in the White House, said he did not recall the decision to use the phrase, but that it was easy to imagine why the choice was made, and repeated, and repeated.

"Strong is a tempting word," Kusnet said. "It's simple, declarative. It's alliterative. And it had the added benefit of being accurate."

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