"One of the hardest things to get right is that one line where you describe, 'The state of our union is — blank,' and how you fill in that blank," Donald A. Baer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, told The New York Times this weekend. This is false. We already know how President Obama will describe the state of our union in his State of the Union address Tuesday: strong. Baer must not have listened to his boss's speeches that he wrote because it was Clinton who codified the presidential tradition of saying simply, "The state of our union is strong" in every single State of the Union speech. By 2003, The Atlantic's James Fallows pointed out that the build up to the-state-of-our-union-is-strong moment was as predictable but as crowd-pleasing as the Terminator's "I'll be back." George W. Bush and Barack Obama may not agree on much, but neither has wavered from the tradition, daring only to vary the phrase by dabbling in tense changes or superlatives.
You can see the tradition evolve. A straight-up "the state of our union is [blank]" was rare; Lyndon Johnson used all kinds of flowery language. Presidents would make statements that now look meek-- "stronger than a year ago" -- or they were conditional -- the union will be strong if we follow my agenda. By Richard Nixon, whose failure to say "the state of our union is [something good]" was a sign of political trouble, or in Jimmy Carter's case, a sign of economic hardship. Moody reflections often preceded presidents' losing reelection. By the time of George W. Bush's 2002 speech, no act or terrorism or recession could prevent the union from being declared strong. Here's how the state of the union became a cliché.
John F. Kennedy, 1963: "...I can report to you that the state of this old but youthful Union, in the 175th year of its life, is good."
Johnson, 1965: This, then, is the state of the Union: Free and restless, growing and full of hope."
Johnson, 1966: "This is the State of the Union," Johnson said, listing a bunch of stuff. His speech was a bit of a downer: "Yet, finally, war is always the same... to know war is to know that there is still madness in this world."
Johnson, 1967: No clear "state of" moment. Johnson did not run for reelection.
Johnson, 1968: "Several of these goals are going to be very hard to reach. But the State of our Union will be much stronger 8 years from now on our 200th birthday if we resolve to reach these goals now."
Nixon, 1971: "...[W]e have gone through a long, dark night of the American spirit. But now that night is ending..."
Nixon, 1973: "The basic state of our Union today is sound, and full of promise."
Nixon, 1974: No clear "state of" moment. But there was this huge lol: "One year of Watergate is enough." Nixon resigned less than eight months later.
Gerald Ford, 1975: "I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work." No one made this error again.
Ford, 1976: "Just a year ago I reported that the state of the Union was not good. Tonight, I report that the state of our Union is better--in many ways a lot better--but still not good enough." Ford's vision was still not good enough, and he went on to lose to Jimmy Carter that fall.
Ford, 1977: "Taken in sum, I can report that the state of the Union is good."
Carter, 1979: "Tonight, there is every sign that the state of our Union is sound." A little doubt?
Carter, 1980: "This last few months has not been an easy time for any of us. As we meet tonight, it has never been more clear that the state of our Union depends on the state of the world. And tonight, as throughout our own generation, freedom and peace in the world depend on the state of our Union." But was the state of our union good? Carter did not say. He lost to Reagan that fall.
Carter, 1981: Like Ford, after he lost, Carter said the state of our union was stronger because of his presidency. "I firmly believe that, as a result of the progress made in so many domestic and international areas over the past four years, our Nation is stronger, wealthier, more compassionate and freer than it was four years ago."
Reagan, 1983: "As we gather here tonight, the state of our Union is strong, but our economy is troubled."
Reagan, 1984: "...I have come to report to you on the state of the Union, and I'm pleased to report that America is much improved, and there's good reason to believe that improvement will continue through the days to come…"
Reagan, 1985: "I come before you to report on the state of our Union, and I'm pleased to report that after 4 years of united effort, the American people have brought forth a nation renewed, stronger, freer, and more secure than before."
Reagan, 1986: "I am pleased to report the state of our Union is stronger than a year ago and growing stronger each day."
Reagan, 1987: No clear "state of" moment. "...[M]y fellow citizens, America isn't finished. Her best days have just begun."
Reagan, 1988: "Tonight, then, we're strong, prosperous, at peace, and we are free. This is the state of our Union."
Bush, 1991: "...[T]he state of our Union is the union of each of us, one to the other -- the sum of our friendships, marriages, families, and communities."
Bush, 1992: "Moods come and go, but greatness endures. Ours does. And maybe for a moment it's good to remember what, in the dailiness of our lives, we forget: We are still and ever the freest nation on Earth, the kindest nation on Earth, the strongest nation on Earth." Bush lost to Bill Clinton that fall.
Clinton, 1995: "I am also proud to say tonight that our country is stronger than it was 2 years ago." (Republicans had just won majorities in the House and Senate in the midterm elections.)
Clinton, 1996: "The state of the Union is strong."
Clinton, 1997: "My fellow Americans, the state of our Union is strong."
Clinton, 1998: "Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our Union is strong."
Clinton, 1999: "My fellow Americans, I stand before you tonight to report that the state of our Union is strong."
Clinton, 2000: "My fellow Americans, the state of our Union is the strongest it has ever been."
Bush, 2003: "In a whirlwind of change and hope and peril, our faith is sure; our resolve is firm; and our Union is strong."
Bush, 2004: "In their efforts, their enterprise, and their character, the American people are showing that the state of our Union is confident and strong."
Bush, 2005: "Tonight, with a healthy, growing economy, with more Americans going back to work, with our Nation an active force for good in the world, the state of our Union is confident and strong."
Bush, 2006: "Tonight the state of our Union is strong, and together we will make it stronger."
Bush, 2007: "Yet we can go forward with confidence, because the State of our Union is strong; our cause in the world is right; and tonight that cause goes on."
Bush, 2008: "And so long as we continue to trust the people, our Nation will prosper, our liberty will be secure, and the state of our Union will remain strong."
Obama, 2011: "And tonight more than two centuries later, it's because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our Union is strong."
Obama, 2012: "The state of our Union is getting stronger... As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong." (For the election year, Obama doubled up on strength.)
(Note: We haven't included the faux State of the Union speeches new presidents give after their first election. All photos via Associated Press.)