clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The State of the Union response — and why it's always terrible — explained

Marco Rubio drinks from a bottle of water during his 2013 State of the Union response.
Marco Rubio drinks from a bottle of water during his 2013 State of the Union response.
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

On Tuesday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will deliver the response to the president's State of the Union address. It's an honor and a national platform for a Republican rising star. But it's also a very, very tough job.

Opposition parties have been trying to craft an effective State of the Union response for 50 years, and they've hardly ever succeeded. The most-remembered State of the Union responses are instead the ones that go awry — like Sen. Marco Rubio's 2013 response, when he stopped in the middle of his speech to lean over, reach for a water bottle, and take a swig from it on camera.

So here's some background on where the State of the Union response came from, how parties have tried to make it work, and why their efforts seem doomed to failure.

Where the response came from

George Washington inaugural

George Washington delivers his inaugural address before members of Congress. (Universal History Archive / UIG / Getty)

The origins of the State of the Union response date back to the late 1700s. Presidents George Washington and John Adams would go to Congress to deliver their "annual message," as it was then called. "In response," writes Gerhard Casper, "members of Congress traveled to the President’s House, where they gave a formal answer to the issues raised by the President’s address."

With political parties still forming, this early response was an institutional one from Congress to the president, rather than an effort of the major party that doesn't control the presidency. But after Thomas Jefferson started giving the annual message only in writing — a tradition which stuck for 112 years — the Congressional response fell by the wayside.

By the mid-20th century, presidents were delivering the State of the Union orally again — and with the rise of radio and television, their messages were spread more widely than ever. With partisan competition entrenched, the opposition wanted to have a say. So, in January 1966, the GOP Congressional leaders — Sen. Everett Dirksen and Rep. Gerald Ford — decided to deliver a response to President Lyndon Johnson's address. (Dirksen acknowledged the awkwardness, saying that "the President has a mandate under the Constitution" to give information on the State of the Union to Congress, but "we have no such mandate.")

Experimentation with format

1985 Democratic State of the Union Reponse

In 1985, Democrats responded to the State of the Union with a pre-recorded "infomercial" moderated by Gov. Bill Clinton. (YouTube)

Over the next several decades, the opposition party frequently struggled with the format of the response. It only took two years of Dirksen and Ford giving the response until other Republican members of Congress complained "that the so-called ‘Ev and Jerry Show’ lacked popular appeal," according to a UPI report. So, in 1968, 17 GOP senators and Congressmen took part in an hourlong response that was broadcast on CBS.

Over the following decade, opposition leaders alternated between this "cast of thousands" format, and responses featuring just one or two members of Congress, usually the leaders. And both parties experimented with Q&A-style responses — taking called-in questions from the public, or in-person ones from members of the press. The results weren't too impressive.

In the ‘80s, as Democrats were struggling to counter President Reagan’s charisma, they experimented with changing the format further — by airing pre-recorded "infomercials" featuring interviews with key party members and even focus groups. As you can see in 1985’s response below, hosted by a young Gov. Bill Clinton, it was awkward:

The infomercial format was soon scrapped, and since 1987, every response has featured just one or two elected officials.

But the one thing that stuck from the 1985 debacle was the idea of letting a young party rising star like Clinton deliver the response. And in the 1990s and afterward, the parties increasingly focused on spotlighting racial and gender diversity in their choice of respondents — check out a full list here.

Why the response is so difficult to do well

Clinton State of the Union

This is what the State of the Union looks like. The response... not so much. (Joe Marquette / AFP / Getty)

One thing that hasn't changed is that State of the Union responses are practically never memorable — for anything good, at least. And there are a few reasons why.

First, the State of the Union address is a very tough act to follow. The president speaks in the Capitol before nearly every high-ranking member of all three branches of the federal government and is frequently interrupted with applause from hundreds of people.

The response has been given in various different settings, but it's invariably much less impressive. Some responses have been delivered by a politician alone onscreen, speaking to the camera without applause. Governors Christie Whitman of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia gave their responses in their state capitol buildings, in front of applauding crowds. And there have been the aforementioned infomercials. But generally, these can't compare to the grandeur of the president's setting.

Second, the president promotes himself and his priorities — but the person giving the response has to represent an entire party. So the response usually tends to stick to the bland, the vague, and the uncontroversial — the party's extensively poll-tested message, rather than anything particularly new or interesting.

The third problem was described well by Jonathan Bernstein, who asks, "Who wants to watch a second political speech right after one that usually goes on too long?"

So it's clear that the deck is stacked against the respondent. But total failure isn't inevitable. In comparison to Rubio's 2013 debacle, 2014's response from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers can be deemed a success — because no one remembers it. (These things have to be graded on a curve, after all.)

Perhaps Nikki Haley can achieve similar success this year. Or maybe she'll defy the odds and give a truly memorable, effective speech that shows up the president — anything's possible! We'll find out Tuesday.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.