Why the State of the Union Is Always So Effing 'Strong'

Since Reagan, presidents have said the state of the union is "strong" most years. But can Obama use a different word?

National Journal

The state of our union is awesome.

That sounds a little off, right? You wouldn't be wrong, considering that for the last 30 years, most States of the Union have included the same phrase in some way or another:

Ronald Reagan in 1983: As we gather here tonight, the state of our union is strong, but our economy is troubled.

George H.W. Bush in 1990: Let me say that so long as we remember the American idea, so long as we live up to the American ideal, the state of the union will remain sound and strong.

Bill Clinton in 1998: Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our union is strong.

George W. Bush in 2006: The state of our union is strong, and together we will make it stronger.

Barack Obama in 2012: The state of our union will always be strong.

The state of the union is strong, so it seems. That's the mainstay phrase of most of these speeches — started by Reagan and solidified by Clinton. It's like Bruce Springsteen singing Born to Run or Rodney Dangerfield saying, "I don't get no respect."

"It seems to become a thing that has to be uttered or else people will be disappointed," says Ben Yagoda, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware who writes about language in a New York Times blog.

It is no surprise that "strong" became the time-tested word of choice. It's the perfect, self-evident adjective for the occasion. It's an easy choice for any speechwriter who wants the president to come off as confident and optimistic.

"It's health, vigorous, virile," says Yagoda, the author of the book How to Not Write Bad. "It has that not-stepping-down-from-anyone character, yet it's not aggressive"¦. It's not wishy-washy. There's no room for doubt. No one can argue with it."

And most important: It's not yet tired. While some can look at the phrase and say it's purely formulaic and not exciting, it hasn't reached the point of, say, the Beach Boys still singing Surfin' USA in their 70s.

Now, the president could mix it up and choose a new word like "awesome" — the ubiquitous feel-good word of the day. The president could also tap some synonyms, and say the state of our union is "firm," "robust," "tenacious," "vigorous," or "sinewy." It would be an audacious, but highly unlikely move to steer away from "strong," however.

But is, or was, the United States "strong"? The economy has not improved. Congress remains divided. The administration is riddled with scandals. As Yagoda notes, "There might come a point where that kind of rhetoric might sound a little bit whistling past the graveyard, protesting too much."

Presidents, however, don't have much choice. This level of optimism is expected, if not demanded, says Richard Vatz, a professor of political communication at Towson University. Case in point: Gerald Ford's 1975 State of the Union address.

"I must say to you that the state of the union is not good," said the man who took over after the Watergate-driven resignation of Richard Nixon.

This sort of pessimism was not well received. Neither was Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" speech, although it wasn't a State of the Union address. Honesty is not always the best policy for such speeches. And while it may not be true, "it's always possible in the State of the Union address to be optimistic," says Vatz. "You can always give a positive spin on anything."

While Obama has used different variations of the phrase, saying the state of the union is "strong" and "getting stronger" and "is stronger," it's unlikely he'll use another phrase this week. As Vatz points out, it would just draw needless attention away from his policies.

But if the president does want to change tradition, might we suggest: The state of our union is baller.

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This article has been updated to correct a quote from Ben Yagoda.