President Obama will give his last State of the Union Tuesday, which means Republicans will have their last chance at a rebuttal.
Given the pomp of the President’s speech, the setting of the State of the Union response is particularly tricky. The best backdrops balance formal and informal, avoiding a direct comparison to the main event.
From fireplaces to American flags, here are some tips and tricks for a good backdrop.
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Kathleen Sebelius, 2008
The speaker: Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, who later served as Health and Human Services secretary in the Obama Administration
The setting: The Kansas Governor’s Mansion, an 1887 house in Topeka
Notable details: The burning fireplace is a perennial favorite, showing up in the 2006 response by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and the 2014 response by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. It makes the response seem cozy and warm, an alternative to the pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union. Putting the fireplace in the distance also gave the backdrop good depth of field—the term cinematographers use for making a two-dimensional image appear bigger.
Bobby Jindal, 2009
The speaker: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015
The setting: The Louisiana Governor’s Mansion, a 1963 house in Baton Rouge
Notable details: As with Sebelius’ response, the staircase adds a homey yet elegant touch to the backdrop. Jindal also approached the camera from the hallway, echoing the East Room of the White House, where President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. The U.S. and Louisiana flags frames Jindal nicely, while adding another layer to the backdrop.
Bob McDonnell, 2010
The speaker: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was later convicted of corruption charges
The setting: The House Chamber of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, built in 1785
Notable details: In a break from tradition, the response was structured like the State of the Union, with McDonnell entering the chamber to applause and shaking hands. But while the state Capitol has the right historic feel, the chamber looks small compared to the U.S. Capitol, which viewers had just seen. By mimicking the President’s speech too closely, the response ended up falling short. The carefully selected group of viewers in the background added some much-needed life to the response, however.
Mitch Daniels, 2012
The speaker: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, now president of Purdue University
The setting: The auditorium stage of the Indiana War Memorial, built to honor veterans of World War I
Notable details: Although the War Memorial provides a great exterior shot, the inside location chosen here had little to offer. U.S. and Indiana flags were the only touches to an otherwise flat and generic marble backdrop. The only other prop, a small table, disappeared after the cameras zoomed in.
Marco Rubio, 2013
The speaker: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is currently running for the Republican presidential nomination
The setting: The Speaker’s Conference Room in the U.S. Capitol
Notable details: The two sets of curtains add a personal but formal touch, as though you’re hanging out in Martha Stewart’s dining room. The American flag adds a dollop of pomp, offset by the family photo, which Rubio brought with him, since this isn’t his office. The view out the window adds more depth. But the backdrop ultimately fails because it doesn’t have anywhere in easy reach for Rubio to set his water bottle, leading to an awkward moment on live television.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, 2014
The speaker: U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress
The setting: A room inside the Capitol
Notable details: Fittingly for a speech that focused on her personal story, this is one of the most personal backdrops used. A family portrait sits on a table near a plant and a bowl of (presumably) Washington apples. Even the perennial U.S. flag is folded and placed in a memorial case. The fireplace is unlit, probably for practical reasons, while McMorris Rodgers sits on a gold embroidered couch, suggesting a personal chat in an elegant living room.
Joni Ernst, 2015
The speaker: Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who was elected in 2014
The setting: The Senate Armed Services Committee room in the U.S. Capitol
Notable details: Since the Iraq War veteran focused on military issues in her speech and serves on the Armed Services Committee, the location reinforces the theme of the speech. In addition to the U.S. and Iowa flags, the backdrop also features flags for each of the branches of the U.S. military, giving it a cluttered look. A small lamp adds a cozy touch but the rest of the exterior is in the same field of vision, making the backdrop feel flat.