President Barack Obama reports to Congress and the nation Tuesday on the State of the Union, an annual rite in official Washington that for one night squeezes the three branches of government underneath the same roof for the speech. Some questions and answers about the State of the Union.
Q: Why is the president giving the speech?
A: The Constitution requires that the president “from time to time give the Congress information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Q: Which president delivered the first address?
A: George Washington delivered the first regular “annual message” before a joint session of Congress, in New York, on Jan. 8, 1790.
Q: Does the State of the Union have to be a speech?
A: No. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, changed the custom with his first annual message on Dec. 8, 1801, by sending written copies to both houses of Congress to be read by clerks in the House and Senate. Jefferson wanted to simplify what he believed to be an aristocratic imitation of the British monarch’s speech from the throne, which he thought was unsuitable to a republic. The practice of sending Congress written copies of the speech continued for more than a century.
Q: Who resumed delivering the annual message in person?
A: Woodrow Wilson, on April 8, 1913. Wilson also is widely credited with transforming the speech from a report on the activities of the executive branch into a blueprint for the president’s legislative program for the coming congressional session and year.
Q: When did the annual message become known as the “State of the Union” address?
A: Franklin D. Roosevelt applied the constitutional phrase “State of the Union” to both the message and the event. It became the popular terminology from then on.
Q: How has the speech been affected by advances in communications technology?
A: Calvin Coolidge delivered the first speech broadcast on radio, in 1923. Harry Truman’s address in 1947 was the first broadcast on television. George W. Bush’s 2002 speech was the first made available as a live webcast on the White House website. Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the importance of the national audience when, in 1965, he shifted the hour of the speech from its traditional midafternoon start time to 9:00 p.m. to attract the largest number of TV viewers.
Obama used social media to help power his two presidential campaigns, and he’ll do the same to promote his State of the Union address. Besides tweets on Twitter and photos on Instagram, Obama devotes an entire page on the White House website to the State of the Union address. People can also go to the website to watch an “enhanced” broadcast of the speech, complete with data, graphs and charts from the White House explaining the policies Obama will be talking about.
Q: Has the speech ever been postponed?
A: Yes. Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1986 was postponed after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle on Jan. 28 of that year.
Q: Is there a State of the Union speech every year?
A: There has not been. Each of the past five presidents — Reagan in 1981, George H.W. Bush in 1989, Bill Clinton in 1993, George W. Bush in 2001 and Barack Obama in 2009 — chose not to give an official State of the Union speech the year they were first inaugurated. That speech would have followed their inaugural addresses. In 2009, the White House characterized the speech Obama gave shortly after he took office that year as just an address to a joint session of Congress.
Q: Has the speech always been delivered in person since Wilson resumed the practice?
A: Since World War II, some presidents have skipped the in-person appearance. Truman sent his final message in print, a practice followed by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 and Jimmy Carter in 1981. In 1956, when Eisenhower was recovering from a heart attack he prepared a seven-minute, filmed summary of the message from his retreat in Key West, Fla., that was broadcast nationwide. Richard Nixon sent a printed message to Congress in 1973; his staff said an oral message would have come too soon after his second inaugural address.
Q: Have any presidents not delivered any type of State of the Union message?
A: Two, actually. William Henry Harrison, who died 32 days after his inauguration in 1841, and James A. Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881 after 199 days in office.
Q: Who are the people sitting with the first lady?
A: The White House invites them because they have done something that helps illustrate themes in the president’s speech. Reagan established the tradition of inviting special guests in 1982, and every president since has continued it. Obama’s guests last year highlighted the issues of gun control, education, immigration, jobs and the economy, health care and voting rights, all subjects mentioned in the address.
Q: Wasn’t there something unusual about one of Clinton’s speeches?
A: Clinton’s address in 1999 marked the first time that a president addressed a Congress that was considering the possibility of removing him from office. Opening statements by the defense team in Clinton’s impeachment trial for his affair with Monica Lewinsky were delivered hours before Clinton’s address.
Source: Congressional Research Service.