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Roll Call

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).

Length:

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.”

Potential conflicts:

2011: OMG, is SOTU just too boring? The CW Network is airing a new episode of the teen-cheerleader drama “Hellcats.”
2010: First, the rabid fans of ABC’s “Lost” worried that they would have to skip the prez for their favorite band of castaways. Then “American Idol” looked as if it might compete with SOTU. In the end, the White House rescheduled, avoiding “Lost”; “AI” got bumped.
From the archives: Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) reportedly has stayed home for every SOTU since he came to Congress in 1974, preferring to watch it on TV (hey, his seat is probably comfier and the dress code way less strict). He said he planned to attend this year for the first time.

Unemployment rate:

2011: 9.1 percent
2010: 9.7 percent
From the archives: The unemployment rate was an enviable 1.2 percent in 1944, when President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress.

Laugh line:

2011: “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.” Ba-dum-bum.
2010: Obama yuks that the bank bailout bill was “about as popular as a root canal.”
From the archives: In 1986, President Ronald Reagan appeals to “America’s younger generation” by quoting from the flick “Back to the Future”: “Where we are going, we don’t need roads.” Well played, Mr. President.

Rebuttal drama:

2011: Second fiddle? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turned down the honor of giving the GOP’s take. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) filled in.
2010: None. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s response was mercifully gaffe-free.
From the archives: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s performance in 2009 got rotten tomatoes on delivery (comparisons to Howdy Doody abounded) and substance (really, volcano monitoring?).

Notable topic not mentioned:

2011: Gun control
2010: Guantánamo Bay
From the archives: In 2002, President George W. Bush didn’t say one word that had been on everyone else’s lips: “Enron.”

“Designated Survivor” Cabinet member staying home:

2011:
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
2010: Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development
From the archives: Until 1913, all Cabinet members stayed home, as did everyone else; that was the first year a president gave the address orally. President Woodrow Wilson probably had no idea what he had wrought.

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