The New York Times | Associated Press
Depending on which media outlet you read today, last night was President Barack Obama’s third or fourth State of the Union address. For example, a New York Times page with video and a transcript of the speech calls it Obama’s fourth; others did too, including msnbc.com and Fox News Latino. But an AP report on the speech calls it his third. (Update: The Times has fixed the error on its page, though the “fourth” reference is still present in many other media reports.)
According to the White House and even the Times itself, the AP has it correct. In a February 2009 article about Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress, the Times wrote (emphasis mine):
On Tuesday he will make a televised address to a joint session of Congress — the equivalent of a State of the Union speech for a new president — that advisers said would focus on the economy. Meanwhile, Congress will debate $410 billion in overdue appropriations for this fiscal year.
A White House blog post about Obama’s first address also made the distinction:
The President is gearing up to give his first address to a joint session of Congress tonight (it’s not technically a State of the Union, since it’s the first year of his administration).
Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all addressed Congress after taking office, but those aren’t considered official State of the Union addresses, and they had other titles, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Update: Associated Press director of media relations Paul Colford relayed this explanation from AP’s Washington bureau:
It’s President Obama’s third. He gave a speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009 but he had only been in office a couple weeks so it wasn’t a State of the Union. It focused on the dismal economy. His State of the Union speeches were in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Same thing with other presidents going back at least to Ronald Reagan.
Related: Twitter has taken the place of professional media analysis of the speech (The Washington Post) | Obama’s “spilled milk” line was a winner, spurring the fastest rate of tweeting during the speech (Mass Relevance) | NewsHour crowdsources translations of Obama’s State of the Union (Poynter)