In his first inaugural address, President Lyndon Johnson laid out a broad vision for overhauling how the federal government treats the nation’s poor. Americans marked the fiftieth anniversary of Johnson’s vision this year, with many in the GOP alleging that the effort has failed.
“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.”
By the second State of the Union address of his second term, President Richard Nixon had already delivered his famous “I am not a crook” line. He used the address to Congress to insist that he had provided ample materials to a special prosecutor in what he described as the “so-called Watergate affair.” He resigned six months later.
“I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.”
President Ronald Reagan nixed his planned State of the Union after the spectacular explosion of the space shuttle, which many Americans saw live on television. Instead, he gave a short and intimate speech from the White House. The State of the Union at the Capitol was held days later.
“I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.”
After his attempt at overhauling the nation’s health care system failed, President Bill Clinton pivoted towards a message of fiscal responsibility – with a nod to a functional safety net.
“We will meet these challenges, not through big government. The era of big government is over, but we can't go back to a time when our citizens were just left to fend for themselves.”
President Bill Clinton’s 1997 State of the Union address came on the same evening as a California jury’s decision in the O.J. Simpson civil case. Some stations, wary of cutting away from either the president’s first major address of his second term or from the trial that had captivated America, split their screens between the two live feeds.
In his first State of the Union since the September 11, 2001 attacks, President George W. Bush placed the Iraq, Iran and North Korea squarely in a category as enemies of peace.
“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.”
President Barack Obama made no secret of his disapproval of the Supreme Court’s decision to lift restrictions on corporate money in politics. When he criticized the decision in the presence of some of the judges at the State of the Union, Associate Justice Samuel Alito could be seen shaking his head and mouthing “Not true. Not true.”
“I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems."
Just over a year after she was shot in the head in northwest Tucson, Rep. Gabby Giffords was greeted with a standing ovation from her colleagues as she arrived for the president’s State of the Union address. Many of her colleagues were visibly moved by her attendance, possible only after a grueling and ongoing rehabilitation, and the president himself shared a long embrace with her.
“We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common-sense ideas.”
*This list includes only the State of the Union addresses at the beginning of the calendar year, not other presidential joint addresses to Congress like Obama’s speech on health care (think: “You lie!”) and Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon.