It’s a custom rooted in the U.S. Constitution, Article II Section 3, Clause 1: “The President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Much has changed since President George Washington delivered the first speech in accordance with this clause in 1790. At 1,089 words, Washington’s address still holds the record as the shortest of them all.
For most of the 19th century and early 20th century, the president delivered the State of the Union on paper — no in-person pomp and circumstance required.
But since the late 1940s, the speech has become an annual television — and now digital — oratorical event. To state it gently, however, things have not always turned out quite as planned.
Here are seven examples of passages that didn’t work out so well:
Lyndon Johnson, 1966
The 36th president’s vision for U.S. military action in Vietnam didn’t quite work out as planned.
“Our choice became clear. We could leave, abandoning South Vietnam to its attackers and to certain conquest, or we could stay and fight beside the people of South Vietnam. We stayed. And we will stay until aggression has stopped,” Johnson said.
“We will stay because a just nation cannot leave to the cruelties of its enemies a people who have staked their lives and independence on America's solemn pledge — a pledge which has grown through the commitments of three American Presidents.
“We will stay because in Asia and around the world are countries whose independence rests, in large measure, on confidence in America's word and in America's protection.
“And we do not intend to abandon Asia to conquest. The enemy is no longer close to victory. Time is no longer on his side. There is no cause to doubt the American commitment.”
Richard Nixon, 1971
At the beginning of a decade marred by “stagflation” and skyrocketing interest rates, the soon-to-be disgraced 37th president presented a vision for a United States with no inflation at all.
“This can be the Congress that helped achieve an expanding economy, with full employment and without inflation — and without the deadly stimulus of war. This can be the Congress that reformed a welfare system that has robbed recipients of their dignity and robbed States and cities of their resources,” Nixon said.
“This can be the Congress that pressed forward the rescue of our environment and established for the next generation an enduring legacy of parks for the people. This can be the Congress that launched a new era in American medicine, in which the quality of medical care was enhanced while the costs were made less burdensome.
“But above all, what this Congress can be remembered for is opening the way to a new American revolution — a peaceful revolution in which power was turned back to the people — in which government at all levels was refreshed and renewed and made truly responsive. This can be a revolution as profound, as far-reaching, as exciting as that first revolution almost 200 years ago — and it can mean that just 5 years from now America will enter its third century as a young nation new in spirit, with all the vigor and the freshness with which it began its first century.”
Ronald Reagan, 1986
The 40th president predicted crime would fall and health care options would increase. Instead, homicide rates went up during the next several years and the Affordable Health Care Act wouldn’t arrive for another quarter-century.
“Confident in our future, and secure in our values, Americans are striving forward to embrace the future. We see it not only in our recovery, but in three straight years of falling crime rates, as families and communities band together to fight pornography, drugs, and lawlessness, and to give back to their children the safe and, yes, innocent childhood they deserve. We see it in the renaissance in education, the rising SAT scores for three years — last year's increase was the greatest since 1963. It wasn't government and Washington lobbies that turned education around, it was the American people who, in reaching for excellence, knew to reach back to basics. We must continue the advance by supporting discipline in our schools, vouchers that give parents freedom of choice, and we must give back to our children their lost right to acknowledge God in their classrooms.
“Further, after seeing how devastating illness can destroy the financial security of the family, I am directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to report to me by year-end with recommendations on how the private sector and government can work together to address the problems of affordable insurance for those whose life savings would otherwise be threatened when catastrophic illness strikes.”
Bill Clinton 1993
The 42nd president also predicted he’d deliver health care reform. His proposal would prove dead on arrival.
“Later this spring, after the first lady and the many good people who are helping her all across the country complete their work, I will deliver to Congress a comprehensive plan for health care reform that finally will bring costs under control and provide security to all of our families, so that no one will be denied the coverage they need but so that our economic future will not be compromised either. We'll have to root out fraud and overcharges and make sure that paperwork no longer chokes your doctor. We'll have to maintain the highest American standards and the right to choose in a system that is the world's finest for all those who can access it. But first we must make choices. We must choose to give the American people the quality they demand and deserve with a system that will not bankrupt the country or further drive more Americans into agony.”
George W. Bush 2003
Stopping Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs topped the 43rd president’s agenda this year. One problem: Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction” fears ranged from largely unsubstantiated to imaginary .
“The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.
The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary; he is deceiving. From intelligence sources we know, for instance, that thousands of Iraqi security personnel are at work hiding documents and materials from the U.N. inspectors, sanitizing inspection sites and monitoring the inspectors themselves. Iraqi officials accompany the inspectors in order to intimidate witnesses.
“With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East and create deadly havoc in that region. And this Congress and the America people must recognize another threat. Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.”
Barack Obama, 2009
Riding a wave of hope and change, the 44th president predicted in his annual address that year — technically not a State of the Union speech — that Democrats and Republicans would unify around common causes and increasingly find common ground.
“As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us — watching to see what we do with this moment; waiting for us to lead. Those of us gathered here tonight have been called to govern in extraordinary times. It is a tremendous burden, but also a great privilege — one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans. For in our hands lies the ability to shape our world for good or for ill.
“I know that it is easy to lose sight of this truth — to become cynical and doubtful; consumed with the petty and the trivial … I know that we haven't agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground.”
Donald Trump 2017
The 45th president wasn’t just going to wage a war on drugs, he said he would win and end it. And our border issues? He’d end them.
“I have ordered the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, along with the Department of State and the Director of National Intelligence, to coordinate an aggressive strategy to dismantle the criminal cartels that have spread all across our nation. We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth, and we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted.
“At the same time, my administration has answered the pleas of the American people for immigration enforcement and border security. By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions and billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone. We want all Americans to succeed, but that can't happen in an environment of lawless chaos. We must restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders.
“For that reason, we will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border. As we speak tonight, we are removing gang members, drug dealers, and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak, and as I promised throughout the campaign.”