Four Historic State of the Union Speeches and What Made Them Stick

A good State of the Union sets a course for the rest of a presidency and help define a legacy.

US President Bill Clinton acknowledges the applause as he starts his State of The Union address to the 105th Congress and the American people 27 January on Capitol Hill in Washington. Clinton defended the Social Security program, promoted a raise in the minimum wage, proposed improvements in education and asked Congress to approve a consumer bill of rights for medical care.

Photographer: JOE MARQUETTE/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his first State of the Union address and said that “this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

Fifty-one years later, Johnson’s “war on poverty” speech is on nearly every best-State-of-the-Union-ever list. As a country, the U.S. is still benefitting from, paying for, and debating several of the anti-poverty programs he introduced, including Medicare and Medicaid. 

On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama will give his penultimate address, waging his own, less sweeping war on poverty. He’ll propose changes to the tax code, free community college for many students, and expanded family leave. 

But as the president attempts to set the tone for his last two years and define how history will rule on his tenure, it’s not clear whether the State of the Union even matters anymore. Last year’s address was the least-watched State of the Union in 14 years, according to Nielsen. This year may not be much better. It’s late in Obama’s term, Republicans control Congress, and he’s spent most of the last two weeks previewing what he'll say about his policy proposals. That helps the administration shape the media narrative, but it dampens the “wow” factor. 

History is full of the “wow” factor, on the other hand. Four presidents gave speeches in the 20th and 21st centuries that proved memorable and ceaselessly referenced: Franklin D. Roosevelt on the “four freedoms” in 1941, Johnson on the “war on poverty” in 1964, Bill Clinton on welfare reform in 1996, and George W. Bush on the “axis of evil” in 2002. Obama may not be able to capture the nation's attention the way they did, but he has two more chances to join the list.

The four freedoms

Roosevelt on Jan. 6, 1941:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

Roosevelt's list—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, everywhere in the world—is what people often recall, but his speech was also an attempt to gain support for his lend-lease proposal, under which the country would lend the allies supplies and accept deferred payment.

“At the time of the State of the Union, the country was absolutely divided on the idea of lend-lease, even though he’d mentioned it earlier in December,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, and former member of the Johnson administration, in a phone interview.

“There was an isolationist mood that was pretty strong. ... Through that State of the Union, then through the succeeding months in the Congress, when lend-lease gets passed, it’s one of the most important policies ever, because it allows America to help England, the allies, eventually Russia.”

The axis of evil

Bush on Jan. 29, 2002:

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. [...] the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

In his first State of the Union speech after 9/11, Bush gave a clear message to the world: These are our enemies, and, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield told the New York Times, “the world has to know the potential not for thousands of people to be killed but tens of thousands of people to be killed.”

What came next: The war in Iraq, and the discovery that Iraq did not, in fact, have an active WMD program. “For better or worse, [the address] has changed so much of America’s position in the world,” Goodwin said. 

The war on poverty 

Johnson on Jan. 8, 1964:

Let this session of Congress be known as the session [...] which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.

The War on Poverty, and the starting point for Johnson’s Great Society, was fought with four major bills:

  • The Food Stamp Act of 1964, which made the food stamp pilot program permanent.
  • The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created initiatives like the Job Corps training program and the Volunteers in Service to America. 
  • The Elementary and Secondary School Act, which focused on equal opportunity in education and provided additional funds to schools with high concentrations of low income families. 
  • The Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid. 

The success of those programs—and whether it’s worth investing in the social safety net at all—is still being debated 50 years later.

Last January, Representative Paul Ryan declared that the war on poverty “failed” and that the federal government keeps “dumping money into programs we know won’t work.” The authors of a September 2014 report from the conservative Heritage Foundation argued that “progress against poverty, as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau, has been minimal, and in terms of President Johnson’s main goal of reducing the ‘causes’ rather than the mere ‘consequences’ of poverty, the War on Poverty has failed completely.”

A December 2013 report from Columbia University argued that the effort had worked, with poverty decreasing by 40 percent. The New Yorker noted that it “isn’t all good news ... but it presents a very different picture of the past fifty years than the one that the Republicans are peddling.” 

'The era of big government is over'

Clinton on Jan. 23, 1996:

The era of big government is over. But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.

Clinton’s 1996 address is another staple of best State of the Union lists, and even inspired a plot point in a West Wing episode (though the show decided that the era of big government wasn’t over after all). In a sense, Clinton was simply acknowledging a new political reality created by the Reagan administration. 

“There’s no question that Reagan started the country on a different attitude towards government,” Goodwin said. “It’s true that [Clinton] signals something important when he says the era of big government is over, but Ronald Reagan’s election, and his having proclaimed—with the backing of the conservative movement behind him—that government was the problem, not the solution, that had already happened.”

Clinton was also speaking after a 21-day government shutdown over the budget and ahead of a fall re-election bid. In that same speech, he made the case for welfare reform after promising in his first State of the Union to “end welfare as we know it”). On Aug. 22, 1996, he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which incorporated several policies supported by Republicans

Nearly 30 years later, Clinton is still remembered as the man who transformed the welfare system, especially by liberals. While the law did reduce the number of people on welfare, it has also been criticized—then and now—for hurting the poorest Americans.

As for the size of government, Clinton spoke too soon. “When you think about Obamacare and the stimulus and things that have followed, I’m not sure that the era of big government is necessarily truly over,” Goodwin said.

Full Bloomberg Politics coverage: State of the Union 2015