It's Still the Economy, Stupid: The State of Obama's Union

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Barack Obama's State of the Union addresses through the years. Reuters

The nation was in the grips of a crisis, but there was only a hint of gray in President Barack Obama's hair as he stood in front of Congress on February 24, 2009, and spoke to the country about the state of the union. Wearing a dark suit and red tie, an energetic and confident Obama "sought to convince an angry, anxious America that a moment of crisis is actually a time for expanding aspirations, not shrinking horizons," as The New York Times put it.

Fast-forward six years and the president will once again speak about the state of the union, on Tuesday night. The Great Recession is over, but the long-sputtering economy has taken its toll, both on the nation and Obama himself. These days, the president's hair is far grayer and his face seems permanently stuck in a weary expression. Foreign wars and partisan squabbling have clearly played a role, but a look back at his previous State of the Union addresses shows just how much time, and how many words, he's devoted to the future of the American economy.

In this year's speech, the president is once again going to make economic concerns a major part of his address. Now, more than ever during his presidency, there are real reasons to be optimistic about the future. The pace of job growth is accelerating, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.6 percent. But many people are still struggling, which is why income inequality, child care and education are expected to be among the main themes of Obama's speech Tuesday night.

As the president once again focuses on the expanding aspirations of Americans, here's a look back at his previous State of the Union addresses, his main points and how his speeches were received.

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U.S. President Barack Obama is applauded by Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as he addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington, Feb. 24, 2009. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool/Reuters

February 24, 2009

Obama's first address on the state of the nation was technically an "Address to Joint Session of Congress," due to the closeness of the address to his inauguration and its focus on the economy.

We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.

Main points: The financial crisis, jobs, banks, the stimulus package, renewable energy, the auto industry, housing, health care reform, education, terrorism, veterans.

Response: "Democratic leaders say their legislation will grow the economy. What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line and saddle future generations with debt." —GOP response by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal

Reaction: "This was the year that pretense and pride fell by the wayside and the president reported to the nation that things have skidded wildly off course.… The young new president projected a voice of generational confidence to a public that by one measure is less confident than at any other time since Mr. Obama was in grade school." —Peter Baker, The New York Times

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union address as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (above L) and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applaud on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 27, 2010. Tim Sloan/Pool/Reuters

January 27, 2010

Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history's call.

Main points: The recession, unemployment, taxes, financial reform, clean energy, exports, education, health insurance, the deficit ("of dollars" and "of trust"), the war in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, civil rights, equal pay, the Supreme Court.

Response: "Top-down, one-size-fits-all decision-making should not replace the personal choices of free people in a free market, nor undermine the proper role of state and local governments in our system of federalism." —GOP response by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell

Reaction: "President Obama used his first State of the Union address to reset his relationship with the American middle class. But it was the politics of Washington, rather than any specific policy, that the president spoke about with the most passion after a year when the change he pledged proved elusive." —Scott Wilson, The Washington Post

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 25, 2011. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool/Reuters

January 25, 2011

What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

Main points: Growth of the economy, technology and innovation, renewable energy, education, immigration, global competitiveness, government regulations, the deficit, tax breaks, government transparency, Iraq, Al-Qaeda, Iran, troops.

Response: "The president and the Democratic leadership have shown, by their actions, that they believe government needs to increase its size and its reach, its price tag and its power.… We believe the days of business as usual must come to an end. We hold to a couple of simple convictions: Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first. Our nation is approaching a tipping point." —GOP response by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin

Reaction: "Obama's second state of the union address was short on inspiration, and was something of a letdown following his moving speech at the Tucson memorial service earlier this month. But his themes—the economy, education, the 'Sputnik moment' the United States faces—are what keep middle-class families awake at night." —Dan Kennedy, The Guardian

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U.S. President Barack Obama (C) delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, as Vice President Joe Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) look on, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 24, 2012. Saul Loeb/Pool/Reuters

January 24, 2012

What's at stake aren't Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.

Main points: The end of the Iraq War, jobs, tax reform for American businesses, manufacturing, education costs, innovation, natural gas, construction, government regulation, the deficit, economic fairness (the "Buffett Rule,") Libya, Syria, the death of Osama bin Laden.

Response: "On these evenings, presidents naturally seek to find the sunny side of our national condition. But when President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true." —GOP response by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels

Reaction: "While billed as a blueprint for "An America Built to Last," President Obama's State of the Union Address was also a game plan to help him win a second term. The speech was skillfully crafted to avoid any overt reelection rhetoric, but it gave the president the largest audience he will have to cast his record of the last three years in the most favorable light." —Mark Knoller, CBS

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U.S. President Barack Obama (C), flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 12, 2013. Charles Dharapak/Pool/Reuters

February 12, 2013

So, together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the State of our Union is stronger.

Main points: American grit, the deficit, the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, jobs, manufacturing, clean energy, natural gas, housing, education costs , Al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, Iran, cyberdefense, global poverty, Egypt, Syria, gun violence.

Response: "There are valid reasons to be concerned about the president's plan to grow our government. But any time anyone opposes the president's agenda, he and his allies usually respond by falsely attacking their motives." —GOP response by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida

Reaction: "In a wide-ranging speech focused on strengthening the middle class, Obama gave little ground to his adversaries.… Although the State of the Union was less about progressive principles than was the second inaugural, its tone and substance extended few olive branches to the Republicans. For a while, anyway, Obama is committed to an outside-in strategy: He will take his case to the country to build support for his program and ratchet up pressure on the opposition party to go along." —William Galston, Brookings Institution

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Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner applaud as President Barack Obama finishes his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 28, 2014. Larry Downing/Reuters

January 28, 2014

After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.

Main points: Economic growth, jobs, the tax code, high-tech manufacturing, small businesses, innovation, energy, student loans, early education, the minimum wage, financial security, the Affordable Care Act, citizenship, Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, Iran, European allies, the Olympics, military families.

Reaction: "Tonight the president made more promises that sound good, but won't solve the problems actually facing Americans. We want you to have a better life. The president wants that too. But we part ways when it comes to how to make that happen.… We hope the president will join us in a year of real action—by empowering people—not making their lives harder with unprecedented spending, higher taxes and fewer jobs. —GOP response by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers

Response: "Same president. Same audience. Same pomp and circumstance. Different era. The contrast between President Obama's State of the Union Address a year ago and the one he delivered Tuesday night is the difference between soaring ambitions—understandable for someone who had just decisively won a second term in the White House—and downsized dreams. It reflects a political journey from the aspirational to the achievable." —Susan Page, USA Today

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