The Final Address: Comparing Presidents' Last State of the Union Speeches

How will Obama compare to George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan?

When President Obama delivers his final State of the Union speech Tuesday night, he will be one of only a handful of presidents to end a second term with an address to the nation, and like his predecessors, he will try to ensure his imprint on the country’s future and the coming election.

"It is sometimes important for us to step back and take measure of how far we've come," Obama said Tuesday morning on NBC's "Today" show. "The economy right now is doing better than any other economy in the world by a significant margin. We remain the strongest nation on earth by far."

Among other two-term presidents, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both vaunted thriving economies as their presidencies neared the end and offered policies to keep them growing. George W. Bush faced a country divided by the Iraq War and a faltering economy.

Obama is expected to talk about the country’s resiliency even as many Americans question the direction the country is headed. Seventy percent of the public says the country is on the wrong track, according to a December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Republican presidential candidates are zeroing in on that discontent.

“You'll hear a big, optimistic, generous view of the future of America from the president on Tuesday," Obama Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough told NBC News’ "Meet the Press."

Of Republican portrayals of a country mired in dysfunction, McDonough said, “I don't really get it. What I see is an America that's surging.”

President George W. Bush in his last address to Congress emphasized the unfinished war in Iraq and warned against bringing troops home too early from a conflict that took up much of his attention while he was in office. On the faltering economy, the voters’ top issue, he urged quick approval of a tax rebate package.

“Our country has been tested in ways none of us could have imagined,” Bush said. “We faced hard decision about peace and war, rising competition in the world economy and the health and welfare of our citizens.”

Like presidents before him, he fended off any suggestion that he was a lame duck.

“We have unfinished business before us and the American people expect us to get it done,” he said.

The Los Angeles Times in an analysis of the speech called the section on the progress in Iraq and Afghanistan the most soaring and upbeat while noting that the durability of those accomplishments remained in question.

The Washington Post said the grand dreams Bush had begun his term with — remaking Social Security and immigration law — had given way to modest proposals for hiring the spouses of military members.

Last year, the Congressional Research Service looked at the tradition of the speeches and stressed that a president has two audiences in mind -- Congress and the American public. After Tuesday's speech, Obama will travel to Omaha, Nebraska, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to highlight the country’s economic progress during his administration. Unemployment in both states has dropped significantly in the last seven years, according to the White House.

According to a list compiled by The American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, only five other presidents who served two full terms gave a State of the Union address at the start of their final year in office: George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The list does not include four-term president Franklin D. Roosevelt, while other two-term presidents submitted written reports to Congress.

Clinton said that the state of the union was the strongest it had ever been. He pointed to prosperity and social progress with little internal crisis or external threats.

The United States was beginning a new century with more than 20 million new jobs, the fastest economic growth and lowest unemployment rates in 30 years, the lowest poverty rates in 20 years and the first back-to-back budget surpluses in 42 years, he said.

“Never before have we had such a blessed opportunity — and therefore such a profound obligation — to build the more perfect union of our founders’ dreams," he said.

He set some grand goals, among them health care for all, a cleaner planet and prosperity for every community. He also called for tougher gun control, including state licenses showing new handgun buyers had passed background checks under the Brady bill and a gun safety course. Analysts immediately noted that the National Rifle Association opposed licensing gun buyers.

Reagan in his final address called the state of the union much improved and said that there was good reason to believe it would continue to improve.

“For a time we forgot the American dream isn’t one of making government bigger; it’s keeping faith with the mighty spirit of free people under God,” he said.

Inflation had dropped from 12.4 percent to 3.4 percent, across-the-board tax reductions had been passed and industries such as transportation had been deregulated, he said.

“Tonight, we can report and be proud of one of the best recoveries in decades,” he said. “Send away the hand wringers and the doubting Thomases."

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