This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

The State of the Union

Tonight President Obama will deliver his second State of the Union address. The president is expected to continue his “competitiveness” initiative which has been a component of his speeches over the past few months. The initiative calls for increasing American exports and increasing spending on education, among other things. Other topics will likely include the end-of-year deadline for complete troop withdrawal from Iraq and deficit reduction.

But that’s this year’s speech. There have been 221 previous addresses in U.S. history; here are five things you need to know about them.

1. The president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union.”

The basis for the State of the Union comes from the Constitution, Article II, Section 3, Clause 1.  George Washington gave the first address to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790.

2. The president does not always make the address to Congress in person.

President John Adams continued Washington’s tradition of giving the annual address in person. However, President Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice because he felt it was an aristocratic imitation of the British monarch’s speech from the throne and therefore not appropriate for the president. Jefferson’s personal secretary delivered a written report to Congress instead. This precedent was followed until 1913 when President Woodrow Wilson delivered an address to a joint session of Congress. Wilson went on to deliver six more of his addresses in person. However, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who made the personal appearance tradition in 1934. President Jimmy Carter was the last president to issue a written report to Congress in 1981.

3. The role of the State of the Union address has evolved over time.

Not only did Wilson revive the personal address, he is also credited with expanding the scope of the speech from a report on the Executive Branch’s activities to a road map of presidential priorities. President Lyndon Johnson added additional importance to the speech by changing it from a mid-day to a primetime address in 1965.

4. The medium is the message.

Or maybe not. But the State of the Union has been broadcast over all of them. President Calvin Coolidge was the first president to have his address broadcast over radio; President Henry Truman’s 1947 address was the first to be seen on television. President George W. Bush’s 2002 address was the first to stream from the White House website, and this year President Obama will enhance the experience by providing charts and graphs to viewers viewing the speech on The White House website.

5. And just in case it all goes terribly wrong.

During every State of the Union there is one member of the Presidential Cabinet that does not attend and is sequestered in a secure location. This person is called the designated survivor and will maintain the line of succession in an emergency. Beginning in 2003 two members from each house of Congress, one from each party, have also been absent. These people are typically not announced until right before the speech.