Obama's memorable State of Union moments aren't about Obama

AP News
Posted: Jan 20, 2015 11:02 PM
Obama's memorable State of Union moments aren't about Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) — The big moments in President Barack Obama's State of the Union speeches are rarely about what he said.

On Tuesday, the emotional highlight was a chamber-wide standing ovation for government subcontractor Alan Gross, freed after five years imprisoned in Cuba. Gross waved both fists triumphantly from the visitors' gallery.

Obama shouldn't feel too bad. It's rare for the State of the Union ritual to yield a lasting phrase, like George W. Bush's "axis of evil" or Bill Clinton's "the era of big government is over."

More often, something from the hullabaloo around the speech becomes memorable — unseemly behavior, or an inspirational or heartrending guest, or just an oddball incident.

Striking moments from Obama's previous addresses:



Like many presidents, Obama didn't give an official State of the Union his first year in office. But he did use a similar event — a televised address to a joint session of Congress — to pitch health care reform.

What's remembered about that speech? Rep. Joe Wilson yelling at the president, "You lie!"

The South Carolina Republican apologized afterward. The Democratic-led House rebuked him for acting out.



Dubious manners were in the spotlight, again.

In his first formal State of the Union, Obama took the unusually antagonistic step of criticizing a Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance as six black-robed justices listened from the front row. TV cameras caught Justice Samuel Alito wincing, shaking his head and mouthing "not true."

The result? Weeks of Republicans and Democrats arguing about who was ruder, the justice or the president.



It took tragedy to restore civility.

Obama's address came just 17 days after a gunman fired on a congresswoman and her constituents at a gathering in Tucson, Arizona. Six people died and 13 were wounded, including Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head.

Images from the House chamber that night were haunting: Lawmakers wearing black-and-white ribbons in memory of the casualties. An empty seat to honor Giffords. And in first lady Michelle Obama's box, the mother, father and brother of Christina Green, a 9-year-old girl killed when she went to meet her congresswoman.

That night lawmakers started a continuing tradition: some Republicans and Democrats now sit together for the big speech, instead of dividing into partisan camps.



Giffords' bittersweet return was the high point of the next State of the Union.

Frail but smiling, holding colleagues' arms for support as she walked into the chamber, Giffords was greeted with a standing ovation, chants of "Gabby, Gabby, Gabby," and a hug and kisses on the cheek from Obama.

The next day, she resigned her seat to continue her long rehabilitation.



Obama talked about restoring the middle class and tackling climate change.

What was everybody talking about the next day?

Marco Rubio's awkward reach for a bottle of water.

The Florida senator, often named as potential presidential material, gave the Republican response to the State of the Union. Halfway through, he became so parched that he all but dived for a plastic bottle somewhere off screen, stood up to take a quick sip of water, and then stooped and reached again to put the bottle back.

"I needed water — what am I going to do?" Rubio joked on TV the next morning.

A Saturday Night Live spoof ensued.



Ronald Reagan started the State of the Union tradition of inviting everyday Americans and telling their inspirational stories.

Last year, a wounded war hero stole the show.

Obama told how he had met Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg before his injury and again after a roadside bomb in Afghanistan nearly killed him.

Remsburg, a recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart who served 10 deployments, rose to his feet with the help of his father. His moved slowly, blind in one eye, left hand curled in a brace, a long scar across the right side of his head.

Congress members gave him the longest, heartiest applause of the evening, a nearly 2-minute standing ovation.

Remsburg flashed a thumbs-up.


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