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An Oval Office Address Sends Strong Message

On Jan. 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan spoke to the American people about the Challenger disaster from the Oval Office.
On Jan. 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan spoke to the American people about the Challenger disaster from the Oval Office.

The president sits at his desk. Framed, family photos are visible in the background. There's an American flag right next to the window that looks out to the South Lawn.

It's an image that barely changes -- except what was once viewed in grainy black and white is now alive in color and high definition.

Tonight at 8 p.m. ET, President Obama is scheduled to give his first address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House.


It's a setting that has been used by presidents at some of the nation's defining moments of the past half-century or so.

-- President John F. Kennedy told the nation of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

-- President Ronald Reagan consoled Americans after the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

-- President George W. Bush said, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, that "today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack."

And it was from the Oval Office that President Richard Nixon announced his resignation in 1974.


The power of the Oval Office speech really began with the rise of television. President Dwight D. Eisenhower broadcast from the office in 1957 to announce he was sending federal troops to Little Rock, where they would enforce court-ordered desegregation of public schools.

Presidential historian Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University, says Eisenhower told Americans that he felt it was important to speak "from the house of Lincoln, of Jackson and of Wilson" because "my words would better convey both the sadness I feel ... and the firmness with which I intend to pursue this course."

"He meant business, and he wanted the public to know that," Kumar says.

That is the exact same message Obama will try to convey tonight.

He hasn't addressed the nation from the Oval Office in the year-and-a-half since he took office as a matter of choice. There have been issues that might have warranted such a setting -- including his decision in December to send additional troops to Afghanistan, and the many steps he's taken to address the nation's economic woes.

Marlin Fitzwater, a spokesman in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, says the choice of whether or not to use the Oval Office as a backdrop says a great deal about a president and his relationship to the people he governs. Obama, Fitzwater says, "really wants to emphasize his own role" in responding to the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Oval Office setting may help the president do just that.

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