Whatever the condition of the country, the state of the union is “strong” — at least according to nearly every president for the past 35 years.
President Gerald Ford was the first to turn the title of the State of the Union address into a hallmark phrase with a verb. He was also the only one to draw a clearly negative conclusion, telling Congress in 1975 that “the state of the union is not good.”
The country had just struggled through Watergate. The Vietnam War was ending on a very low note. And the economy was on the verge of a nose dive. It would be the first and only time a president so bluntly and honestly defined a poor state of health for the country. Even President Jimmy Carter, during years of gas station lines and world turmoil, chose “sound” instead.
Then, President Ronald Reagan found a seemingly magic word. In 1983, he told the nation that “the state of the Union is strong, but the economy is troubled.” This allowed him to admit problems but rhetorically remain above them, pointing to something fundamental — but vague — about the country. The word “strong: was so successful that three presidents in a row — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — used it to describe the state of the union every time they gave such an address.
There was a single exception in recent history. President George H.W. Bush was more philosophical, saying in 1990 and 1991 that Americans themselves needed to rise up to define the state of their union. He was also the only recent president to serve a single term in office.
While we wait to see how President Donald Trump describes the state of our union on Tuesday, here is a look back how each president has finished the thought.
“The state of the Union is…”
2016: … strong.
2015: … strong.
2014: … strong.
2013: … stronger.
2012: … getting stronger.
2011: … strong.
2010: … strong.
2009: … a concern.* (This was an economic message before a Joint Session of Congress. Exact words: “The state of our economy is a concern.”)
George W. Bush
2008: … will remain strong.
2007: … strong.
2006: … strong.
2005: … confident and strong.
2004: … confident and strong.
2003: … strong.
2002: … has never been stronger.
2001: … n/a. (New president’s economic message before a Joint Session of Congress)
2000: … the strongest it has ever been.
1999: … strong.
1998: … strong.
1997: … strong.
1996: … strong.
1995: … stronger. (Exact words: “Our country is stronger than it was two years ago.”)
1994: … growing stronger.
1993: … n/a. (New president’s economic message before a Joint Session of Congress)
George H.W. Bush
1992: — *
1991: … the union of each of us, one to the other — the sum of our friendships, marriages, families and communities.
1990: … depends on each and every one of us.
1989: … n/a. (New president’s economic message before a Joint Session of Congress)
1988: … strong, prosperous, at peace, and we are free.
1986: … stronger than a year ago and growing stronger each day.
1984: … much improved. (Exact words: “America is much improved.”)
1983: … strong, but the economy is troubled.
1982: … will be better. (Exact words: “In the near future the state of the Union and the economy will be better—much better—if we summon the strength to continue on the course that we’ve charted.”)
1981 — n/a. (New president’s economic message before a Joint Session of Congress)
* — denotes speeches in which presidents did not say “the state of the union is…” or anything similar.