The State of the Union address is an annual speech given by the president of the United States to a joint session of Congress. Its purpose is to allow the president to state his legislative agenda and priorities for the year to come.
Under Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, the president is obligated to make the U.S. Congress aware of the “state of the union.”
As well, since 1976, the opposition party has been giving responses after the president speaks, but this is not something that is in the U.S. Constitution or mandated by any law.
We have compiled a list of 15 defining moments in the history of the State of the Union address, including responses that are either unique in substance or delivery.
Sen. Marco Rubio gave the official GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2013, which many saw as his first major break on the national stage. During the speech, however, it became obvious that his mouth was becoming dry and he hastily drank from a bottle of water.
The Internet responded with gifs, memes and viral videos, all mocking the senator’s “water bottle-gate.”
Though he has tried to move forward as a potential contender for the 2016 nomination, Rubio has only seen more struggles, such as a failed push for immigration reform.
Rep. Michelle Bachmann gave the first official tea party response sponsored by the Tea Party Express in 2011, and it was generally poorly received. While some, such as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, criticized Bachmann’s aggression during a time of (what seemed to be) relative party reconciliation, most were more concerned with the representative’s presentation.
Bachmann seemed to struggle while reading what most assumed to be her cue cards, and her eyes were fixed on something other than the camera filming her. Though Bachmann said at the time that her response was in no way supposed to suggest a division within the Republican Party, the tradition has not only carried on but led to even more responses from an increasingly divided conservative movement.
During the 2010 State of the Union Address, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was seen mouthing the words “not true” in response to President Barack Obama accusing the high court of “opening the flood gates of special interests."
In Citizens v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations or labor unions.
It was everything but a State of the Union. Just after President Barack Obama was inaugurated as the country’s 44th president, he gave an address to a joint session of Congress, laying out his plan to reform health care.
"There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants,” Obama said during his speech. “This, too, is false.”
This is when Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina pointed at the president and shouted, “You lie.”
Wilson later apologized.
Arguably the most memorable line in all of President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speeches, his 2002 speech was the first to dub Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the “axis of evil.”
In the speech, delivered just shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush cautioned that “by seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.” This statement came back to haunt the president when such weapons were never found.
In 1996, the final State of the Union Address of President Bill Clinton’s first term declared that the “era of big government” was over.
This phrase solidified the president’s reputation as a centrist legislator, just as his re-election bid would be in full swing in a matter of months.
The legacy of the phrase and its perceived ramifications largely overshadowed the rest of the speech, which also declared “we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”
In 1975, President Gerald Ford famously declared with bluntness, “The state of the union is not good.”
Ford was clearly justified in declaring so. He gave the speech just months after taking office, replacing Richard Nixon who resigned after the revelations surrounding the Watergate scandal.
President Richard Nixon, in his final State of the Union address, called for an end to the Watergate investigations.
“One year of Watergate is enough,” he famously declared. Not only did the investigation not end, but the results eventually led to his resignation shortly after on Aug. 9, 1974.
It was in President Lyndon Johnson’s first State of the Union address in 1964 that he announced the “unconditional war on poverty.”
Johnson proposed the legislation as a reaction to the increasing national poverty rate. He believed in expanding the government’s role in education and health care as part of a strategy to reduce poverty. The legislation set the stage for such programs as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s declaration, and as a result politicians, journalists and others who influence policy have sought to dissect the effectiveness of his war on poverty.
President Harry Truman’s State of the Union address in 1947 was most notable because it was the first such address to be televised.
Like many presidents before and after him, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the State of the Union address to promote his broad agenda. It was in his 1941 State of the Union address where Roosevelt first outlined what is known as the four freedoms.
The four freedoms he proposed that everyone “everywhere in the world” ought to enjoy were: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
For more than 100 years, the State of the Union address was a written document submitted to Congress, rather than a delivered speech. That all changed with President Woodrow Wilson in 1913.
The first Democratic president inaugurated in decades decided to try to verbally persuade Congress to aid him in his Democratic/Progressive agenda.
Although he started the tradition of giving the State of the Union orally, not every president would do so throughout history.
Abraham Lincoln’s second annual State of the Union was particularly memorable, considering it was delivered shortly after announcing the Emancipation Proclamation.
“In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth,” Lincoln wrote. “Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”
It is worth noting that this address was delivered back when presidents wrote out their address and distributed it to Congress. You can see the address at the National Archives website.
James Polk, the 11th president of the United States, began his fourth annual State of the Union in 1848 with a confirmation of the discovery of gold in California that most thought was a hoax prior to Polk’s announcement. This was the catalyst to the Gold Rush and started the great migration westward.
“The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service,” Polk wrote. “… The explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large and that gold is found at various places in an extensive district of country.”
In President James Monroe’s seventh annual message to Congress, given in 1823, he declared what is now called the Monroe Doctrine.
“The Monroe Doctrine became a cornerstone of future U.S. foreign policy,” as written at the Library of Congress. The message behind the address and the doctrine was to warn European countries not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere.