State of the Union: memorable moments from US presidents

Centrepiece speech of US political year a tradition started by George Washington in 1790

"We've seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade... this is good news people," President Obama says in his State of the Union address. Video: Reuters


The annual State of the Union speech to the joint session of Congress gives the US president an opportunity to underscore past policy achievements and champion future policy goals.

Where inaugural addresses are dominated by grandiose rhetoric delivered to inspire, the annual speeches to US lawmakers tend to be duller, consisting largely of a checklist of legislative ambitions.

“So I’ve got three words for you to describe American State of the Union addresses,” said Allan Lichtman, history professor at American University. “You ready? Boring, boring and boring. These are not the great memorable speeches of American history.”

That analysis may be generally correct, but there have been some notable moments during the centrepiece speech of the US political year - a tradition started by George Washington in 1790, suspended by Thomas Jefferson in 1803 and reinstated by Woodrow Wilson in 1913.

2010: Obama riles a judge

During President Barack Obama’s second State of the Union address, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was caught on camera shaking his head and mouthing the words “not true” when Mr Obama criticised a court ruling loosening rules on election campaign financing.

2002: George W Bush and the “axis of evil”

In the first State of the Union address after the September 2001 attacks on the US, President Bush branded Iraq, Iran and North Korea as “an axis of evil”, adding that “by seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger”. These words later haunted Republicans after Bush was found to have invaded Iraq on a false premise.

1996: Clinton’s “era of big government”

Ahead of the 1996 midterm elections, President Bill Clinton sought to shift from left-leaning liberalism into the political middle by proclaiming that “the era of big government is over”. Annual spending by the US government has tripled since then.

1974: Nixon wants rid of Watergate

President Richard Nixon told Congress in this State of the Union address that he had handed over all the material required to conclude the investigation into the Watergate political spying scandal, declaring: “One year of Watergate is enough.” He resigned less than seven months later.

1964: LBJ’s war on poverty

President Lyndon Baines Johnson used his first State of the Union address to declare “unconditional war on poverty”, paving the way for a series of social welfare programmes such as Medicare (national health insurance mostly for the elderly), Medicaid (health insurance for the low earners) and food stamps for the poor.

1941: FDR’s “four freedoms” speech

President Franklin D Roosevelt called for four essential human freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear - which are still as pertinent 74 years later.

1823: the Monroe Doctrine

In his seventh annual address to Congress, President James Monroe warned European countries not to colonise or meddle in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, a position that became known as the Monroe Doctrine - and a cornerstone of American foreign policy.