State of the Union response: The worst job in politics

Story highlights

  • The President is a hard act to follow -- just ask these folks
  • The first response to the State of the Union came in 1966

(CNN)Late Tuesday night, a few minutes after President Barack Obama completes his final State of the Union address and exits the House chamber, another tradition will commence.

This year, from a little more than 400 miles away in Columbia, South Carolina, Nikki Haley will present the Republican response.
It's one of the most difficult jobs in politics.
The practice of the party not occupying the White House giving a response to the president's speech began in 1966, when top Republicans successfully lobbied the networks for an opportunity to answer President Lyndon B. Johnson. Future commanders-in-chief Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush were among the first crop of opposition responders. Both would eventually graduate to prime-time, but with time and added scrutiny the role would seemingly turn from golden ticket to poisoned chalice.
Haley, the South Carolina governor, is also someone talked about as a possible vice presidential pick. But the job isn't as simple as just showing up and talking to the camera.
"It's very hard, optically, to respond to the State of the Union address in any environment that optically conveys the same stature or importance or seriousness," communications consultant Liz Mair, a Republican, told CNN. "Most environments will look more amateurish, less important, or something else 'lesser' by comparison."
Among the greatest challenges: Time. The President, having prepared for weeks, is expected to speak for about an hour. Haley will have only a few minutes.
Here are a handful of the most memorably lame, embarrassing, or just cringe-inducing responses from both sides of the aisle.

2013: The parched Rubio

The substance of Marco Rubio's February 2013 response to Obama's address was overshadowed by his apparently unconquerable thirst. The new senator, not yet a declared presidential hopeful, lunged oddly for a sip from his water bottle mid-response -- trying to maintain eye contact with the camera -- and ended up swallowing bucketfuls of mocking criticism from social media's peanut gallery.

2011: All eyes on what?

Two years earlier, then-Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was tapped to give a response on behalf of the tea party wing of the GOP. Her speech was broadcast by CNN, but as curious viewers immediately noted, her eyes weren't looking at the camera but instead seemed focused elsewhere. Specifically, on another camera provided by the Tea Party Express, a conservative group livestreaming her remarks.

2009: Welcome to Mr. Jindal's neighborhood

Maybe it was poor set design, or simply the weight of the moment, but Jindal's flat performance and odd walk into camera view before he spoke inspired at least one critic to compare -- with the aid of this incredible video -- the Louisiana governor to Mister Rogers, the longtime PBS children's show host.

2008: Sebelius snoozefest

Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was the last Democrat to respond to a State of the Union speech and she sent the party out with a ... thud. Though wise for not attempting to recreate the energy that fuels a presidential address to a packed congress, Sebelius' hushed tones and prolonged pauses had viewers scrambling for their pillows.

1985: Bill Clinton tries his hand

More infomercial than speech, the Democratic response 30 years ago was "hosted" by an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton and featured an assortment of party poobahs, like House Speaker Tip O'Neill, taking turns giving canned remarks while occasionally begrudging airtime to "focus group participants."