When presidents speak: Making history from the White House

History behind Obama's speech

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    History behind Obama's speech

History behind Obama's speech 01:55

Story highlights

  • Obama's speech Tuesday night was in the tradition of other U.S. presidents
  • However, unlike most presidents, Obama again chose the East Room instead of the Oval Office
  • He also told the nation about the death of bin Laden from the East Room

When President Barack Obama took the podium on Tuesday night, he followed in the footsteps of generations of presidents before him: speaking to the American people about a critical issue facing the United States.

But he didn't follow literally in those footsteps: Unlike many presidents before him, he spoke from the East Room -- not the traditional setting of the Oval Office.

From President Ronald Reagan announcing the invasion of Grenada to President H.W. Bush announcing the beginning of the Gulf War to President George W. Bush announcing the invasion of Iraq, presidents have chosen to use the visual power of the "Oval."

Obama, though, has used that iconic setting for prime-time speeches only twice during his presidency, both within months of each other.

In June 2010, the president sat behind the Resolute desk and updated the nation on "the battle we're waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens," after the Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana.

In August of that year, Obama made a point to reference the setting of his speech announcing the end of the combat mission in Iraq.

"From this desk, seven-and-a-half years ago, President Bush announced the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Much has changed since that night," Obama said.

When it was time for Obama to make his major military announcement -- the May 2011 death of Osama bin Laden -- he chose to walk down the long White House hallway to his East Room podium, the same setting he used for his Syria speech.

Obama is not the first president, though, to break with tradition of either the location or timing in making major pronouncements.

President Bill Clinton's first comments on his missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 came from an ad-hoc press room set up in a Martha's Vineyard school where he was on vacation. He would make a second, more formal announcement later that day from the Oval Office.

President H.W. Bush regularly used the Oval Office, and he made perhaps the earliest-ever speech in December 1989: A 7:20 a.m. nationwide address to announce military action in Panama.