From a political perspective, the State of the Union Address is a very important agenda setting tool for the President. The President is the only person elected by all the people, and this speech allows the President to set forth his or her goals and priorities on behalf of the nation. It usually is scheduled a week before the President’s budget is sent to the Congress, and the speech provides an opportunity for the President to make the first impression in the budget debate. It also provides a springboard for the President to follow-up with speeches in other parts of the country, highlighting various policy goals. Though Speaker Newt Gingrich tried once, no one in Congress has the same ability to command the attention of the people as the President’s State of the Union address.
The State of the Union as we know it today—with the three branches of the Federal Government assembled, in the Capitol, with a live-TV and internet audience, followed by a response from a politician of the other party—is how the President fulfills the constitutional requirement that he “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union” (Article II, Section 3). However, he does not need to satisfy his duty this way, and previous States of the Union have taken on different forms. Today’s State of the Union draws on practices and precedents that are both time-honored and decidedly modern, and they handily serve the President’s ability to carry out his agenda.
President George Washington inaugurated the tradition of delivering a speech to Congress in person. His first speech, then known as the “Annual Address to Congress,” was on January 8, 1790. In terms of word count, it was also the shortest State of the Union speech, which was just shy of 1,100 words. Of this first State of the Union, Washington noted in his diary:
Friday 8th. According to appointment, at 11 Oclock I set out for the City Hall in my Coach—preceeded by Colonel Humphreys and Majr. Jackson in Uniform (on my two White Horses) & followed by Mesr. Lear & Nelson in my Chariot & Mr. Lewis on Horse back following them. In their rear was the Chief Justice of the United States & Secretaries of the Treasury and War Departments in their respective Carriages and in the order they are named. At the outer door of the Hall I was met by the Doorkeepers of the Senate and House and conducted to the Door of the Senate Chamber; and passing from thence to the Chair through the Senate on the right, & House of representatives on the left, I took my Seat. The Gentlemen who attended me followed & took their stand behind the Senators; the whole rising as I entered. After being seated, at which time the members of both Houses also sat, I rose (as they also did) and made my Speech; delivering one Copy to the President of the Senate & another to the Speaker of the House of Representatives—after which, and being a few moments seated, I retired, bowing on each side to the Assembly (who stood) as I passed, and dessending to the lower Hall attended as before, I returned with them to my House.
In the Evening, a great number of Ladies, and many Gentlemen visited Mrs. Washington.
On this occasion I was dressed in a suit of Clothes made at the Woolen Manufactury at Hartford as the Buttons also were.
Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay, whose diary is a critical source of information for the goings-on of the First Congress, recorded details largely the same, down to a remark on the President’s vesture:
All this morning was nothing but bustle about the Senate chamber in hauling chairs and removing tables. The President was dressed in second mourning, and read his speech well. The Senate, headed by their Vice-President, were on his right. The House of Representatives, with their Speaker, were on his left. His family with the heads of departments attended. The business was soon over and the Senate were left alone.
In both of these accounts—particularly Washington’s more detailed version—we can see plenty of similarities between the first State of the Union and how it is done today. However, there are several differences. Washington’s speech was in the Senate, not the House, as is the case today (at the time the Capitol was at Federal Hall in New York city). He delivered it in the morning, rather than the modern custom of the evening, which accommodates prime-time television. Additionally, today the President does not sit at any point during the session. Nor does Congress stand to receive the address. (A seated Congress puts the Legislative Branch on a much more even footing with the Executive Branch.) Following the British tradition, where the two Houses debate a response to the throne speech at the State Opening of Parliament, the House and Senate each prepared a response to the President’s State of the Union.
Washington and his successor John Adams delivered the speech in person each year of their Presidencies. Thomas Jefferson, the third President, abandoned the practice of giving a State of the Union in person. He, reportedly, believed that the practice was too regal, akin to the British Monarch delivering the throne speech at the State Opening of Parliament. Some, however, have speculated that he did not deliver the message in person on account of his lackluster speaking skills. Instead, he sent a written message, and House and Senate clerks read it. Regardless of the reason Jefferson declined to give the speech in person, for over a century his successors invariably followed his lead.
On December 2, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson reinstituted the practice of delivering the State of the Union in person. According to the Congressional Research Service, he “is also widely credited with expanding the scope of the annual message, transforming it from a report on the activities of the executive departments into a tool to draw widespread attention to the policies he supported.” President Wilson delivered addresses in person through 1918. There were three in the early 1920s, but none from 1924 until 1934, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the practice up again in January of that year. From then on, the in-person State of the Union has been an almost annual event. Today, Presidents typically do not have a State of the Union speech during the first year in office since they deliver their inaugural addresses around the same time the annual message is traditionally delivered. President Dwight Eisenhower was the last to decline speaking in person in a year that was not his first in office. That year, around when he normally would have given the speech, he was at the Truman Little White House in Key West, Florida, recovering from a heart attack. A clerk read his annual message to a joint session of Congress.
As can be expected of an event of its stature, the State of the Union is a highly ritualized affair. Today, the Speaker of the House sends the President a letter inviting him to deliver the State of the Union in the House Chamber.
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) November 30, 2015
In addition to the Speaker’s letter, the House and Senate adopt a concurrent resolution to hold a joint session. Notably, the concurrent resolution does not use the phrase “State of the Union,” but simply notes that the Congress shall gather “for the purpose of receiving such communication as the President of the United States shall be pleased to make to them.” The concurrent resolution also specifies a date and time for them to meet.
On the night of the State of the Union, both houses convene in the House chamber. The Speaker, who presides, and the Vice President (the ex officio President of the Senate) are seated on the Speaker’s rostrum. Senators make their way from their side of the Capitol to the House as a group, and they are seated at the front of the Chamber. The Cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, and other dignitaries are seated in the Well of the House. At the appointed time, a committee of Members of Congress, usually leaders in both parties, escorts the President to the Chamber. When he arrives, House Sergeant at Arms announces him by crying out, “Mister/Madam Speaker! The President of the United States!”
Once announced, the President then proceeds to the dais. The Speaker introduces the President to the assembled crowd. The President then delivers his speech from the Clerk’s desk on the dais, one level below where the Speaker and Vice President sit.
During the address itself, the President typically trumpets achievements from the past year and lays out an agenda for the upcoming one. Throughout the speech, the audience typically rises from their seats several times for standing ovations. Virtually all participate in some of the standing ovations, but for others, only the President’s supporters, usually party members, join. One common trope is for President to refer to special guests seated in the First Lady’s box in the gallery. The President points out the guests since they illustrate an important point he is trying to make. These guests are often referred to as Lenny Skutniks, a nod to the first such special guest, whom President Ronald Reagan introduced in 1982. (When the House is meeting to debate, however, it is considered unparliamentary for a Member of Congress to refer to someone in the gallery.)
There is no set length for the State of the Union. According to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, since 1966, the shortest was 28 minutes and 55 seconds, which President Richard Nixon delivered in 1972. President Bill Clinton delivered the longest, speaking for 1 hour, 28 minutes and 49 seconds.
Once the President concludes, the committee of escort leads the President from the Chamber, and the Speaker officially dissolves the joint session. The evening’s proceedings, however, unofficially continue since the opposing party offers a response to the President from another venue. Sometimes this is used as an opportunity to give a “rising star” a chance to speak and increase their name recognition. Unlike the official response that the Houses delivered in Congress’ early days, these responses are not official and are used to distinguish the opposition from the President. In addition to the opposition response, commentators on television and digital news outlets, not to mention the general public on social media, offer their hot takes.
All the hoopla over the State of the Union has prompted some criticism. The most high-profile critic is probably the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who refused to go for many years, regardless of which party controlled the White House. “It has turned into a childish spectacle. I don’t want to be there to lend dignity to it,” he said at an event in 2013. Another State of the Union critic, Perry Bacon, Jr., who writes for FiveThirtyEight, panned the speech for fostering an unrealistic understanding of how the government operates, the overall quality of the address, and the excessive media hype surrounding it. “It’s American politics at its worse, and it’s bad no matter who the president is,” he wrote in 2018.
Despite any opposition to the State of the Union address, it has become a fixture in American politics. It will likely remain as it is, with all its fanfare, for years to come.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.