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Old Is New Again in History’s Big Speech

Tom Williams/Roll Call

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Forget nuanced analysis; here’s the nutshell version of this year’s State of the Union address: “This year, new people need jobs.”

That sentence strings together, in order, the four words most often used by President Barack Obama on Tuesday night. Using the same technique, here is last year’s speech: “This year, American people were out of work and need jobs.”

Sound pretty similar to this year’s?

Despite the huge buildup given the modern State of the Union speech, history has a way of making them all blend together.

For example, this line, from President Richard Nixon’s 1971 speech, sounds as fresh as a pot of newly brewed tea: “Most Americans today are simply fed up with government at all levels.”

And we might think we live in particularly troubled times, but so did President Warren Harding, who declared in 1922, “So many problems are calling for solution that a recital of all of them, in the face of the known limitations of a short session of Congress, would seem to lack sincerity of purpose.”

Maybe, like hemlines and tie widths, everything that’s old is new again. Here’s a comparison of Obama’s 2010 and 2011 State of the Union addresses, with some nuggets from SOTUs past.

Word most often used:

2011: “year” (39 times). “Job” came in fourth, with 31 mentions.
2010: “year” (47 times). “Job” was the fifth-most used word (Obama said it 29 times).
From the archives: In 1995, President Bill Clinton’s favorite word was “people” (used 72 times); “job” was only the 22nd-most used (he uttered it a scant 19 times).


2011: 6,802 words, 1 hour and 2 minutes
2010: 7,304 words, 1 hour and 9 minutes
From the archives: President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 State of the Union was 27,397 words, but mercifully, it took zero minutes (like most SOTUs of its time, it was written and delivered to Congress).

Heroes honored:

2011: Interns finally get some respect. Daniel Hernandez, the intern to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) who is credited with saving his boss’s life during the Tucson shooting, sat next to first lady Michelle Obama.
2010: Kimberly Munley and Mark Todd, the two police officers who stopped the fatal shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, were among the first lady’s guests.
From the archives: Having heroes in the chamber as guests is a relatively recent flourish. But in 1971, Nixon took a moment to honor the late Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), who died shortly before the speech.

State of the Union is:

2011: “Strong.” As in, “Our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.”
2010: “Strong.” As in, “Despite our hardships, our union is strong.”
From the archives: “Sound.” In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared, “Militarily, politically, economically and in spirit, the state of our union is sound.”

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