When President Obama took the stage for his first State of the Union address, he followed in the footsteps of presidents who've used the same pulpit to empathize with Americans'economic hardships and preach optimism for the future.
But just how much the prime time "pep talk" resonnated with everyday Americans is unclear, at a time when the very forum and format of the speech may only compound what the President, in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, called the "feeling of remoteness and detachment" Americans sense from their policymakers.
Despite a year of long-winded political showmanship over health care and the economy, unemployment remains at 10 percent, and more Americans believe the economy is getting worse than getting better, according to the most recent ABC News poll. While the President remains personally popular among Americans, a majority -- 52 percent -- disapprove of his handling of the economy.
Experts say as important as the economic proposals Obama explained in his address will be his continued ability to convince Americans he "feels their pain" and is resolved to cure it.
"It's a tough balancing act," said Robert Lehrman, former White House speechwriter and author of "The Political Speechwriter's Companion."
"One the one hand he has to say to voters who have been disappointed with the process in the last year: 'I understand your frustration, I agree with your frustration.' But on the other hand, he can't say, 'And now I give up.' He can't say, 'I'm going to abandon all my plans.' He'll say, 'I'm going to fight for the things that brought me to the White House.'"
Lehrman says State of the Union addresses follow a predictable, tried-and-true formula that presidents have used for decades.
"The state of the union is not good," President Gerald Ford famously opined in 1975, when millions of Americans were out of work, facing a lingering recession and a growing national debt. "Progress and solutions can be achieved, and they will be achieved," he said.
Five years later, on the heels of one recession and on the eve of another, Jimmy Carter, promised "our challenges are formidable but there's a new spirit of unity and resolve in our country. We move into the 1980s with confidence and hope and a bright vision of the America we want."
And when that bright vision dimmed, Ronald Reagan told the country "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."
That course ultimately led to a resurgence of economic prosperity – and Reagan's approval ratings – by the mid-1980s, and some experts say Obama can learn from Reagan's example in staying the course.
Lehrman, who cites Reagan and Obama as the two best orators of recent memory, says presidential reassurances during tough economic times may only temporarily soothe anxieties and sagging presidential poll numbers -- but it remains important to the national psyche nonetheless.
Five Presidents Who've Promised Economic Prosperity
Virtually every president has in some way taken on the role of "pep-talker-in-chief" – exhorting the nation in soaring language that tough times can be overcome. Here are the top 5 presidential pep talks on the economy from state of the unions in recent memory:
Barack ObamaFeb. 24, 2009: "While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before. … Now is the time to act boldly and wisely to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity. Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down. That is what my economic agenda is designed to do..."
George W. BushJan. 29, 2002: "To achieve these great national objectives -- to win the war, protect the homeland, and revitalize our economy -- our budget will run a deficit that will be small and short-term, so long as Congress restrains spending and acts in a fiscally responsible manner. We have clear priorities and we must act at home with the same purpose and resolve we have shown overseas: We'll prevail in the war, and we will defeat this recession. … American workers want more than unemployment checks -- they want a steady paycheck. When America works, America prospers, so my economic security plan can be summed up in one word: jobs."
Bill ClintonJan. 24, 1995: "Our New Covenant is a new set of understandings for how we can equip our people to meet the challenges of a new economy, how we can change the way our government works to fit a different time, and, above all, how we can repair the damaged bonds in our society and come together behind our common purpose. We must have dramatic change in our economy, our government and ourselves."
George H.W. BushJan. 28, 1992: "There's a mood among us. People are worried. There's been talk of decline. Someone even said our workers are lazy and uninspired. And I thought: Really? You go tell Neil Armstrong standing on the moon. Tell the men and women who put him there. Tell the American farmer who feeds his country and the world. Tell the men and women of Desert Storm. Moods come and go, but greatness endures. Ours does. And maybe for a moment it's good to remember what, in the dailiness of our lives, we forget: We are still and ever the freest nation on earth, the kindest nation on earth, the strongest nation on earth. And we have always risen to the occasion. And we are going to lift this nation out of hard times inch by inch and day by day, and those who would stop us had better step aside. Because I look at hard times, and I make this vow: This will not stand. And so, we move on together, a rising nation, the once and future miracle that is still, this night, the hope of the world."