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Wonkology: State of the Union

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January 8, 2015

Wonkology: State of the Union

As prescribed in Article II of the Constitution, the President is instructed to give Congress an annual report "on the State of the Union" and recommend any measures the President deems "necessary and expedient."

Making Resolutions

The first speech was given in 1790 by President Washington. Since then, 225 messages have been delivered, though less than half have been in person. Until the mid-20th Century, it was called the "President’s Annual Message to Congress," and “State of the Union” became the commonplace term thereafter. Earlier in the Republic, the messages tended to be more of an administrative and economic report. But the State of the Union evolved over time into its current form of providing a venue for the President to rally the American people and Congress in support of his or her agenda.

Tuning in for the Countdown

Though Washington and Adams delivered their messages directly to Congress, Jefferson set the practice of delivering his annual message via courier, believing a presidential address to be too reminiscent of the annual speech given by the British monarchy. His precedent would last until President Wilson delivered his speech before a joint session of Congress in 1913. Since then, the tradition has been for presidents to give their reports in person, as further buttressed by the advent of new forms of media (radio, TV, and the Internet) that allow presidents to reach a broader audience. Nearly 67 million Americans watched President Clinton’s speech in 1993, the all-time record. A little over 33 million viewers watched President Obama’s address in January 2014, the second lowest rating since Nielsen began collecting this data.

First Ones to the Party

The President delivers the address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber. Members of the Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Supreme Court justices also attend, though there has been some controversy regarding this practice. A member of the president’s Cabinet as well as two members from each house of Congress, from both parties, are absent from the Capitol during the speech to assure continuity of government. Though the Senate has a specific seating area, the House has no assigned seating for the speech, meaning members sometimes wait up to 10 hours to secure a seat on the main aisle to shake the President's hand.

Mark Your Calendar

Speaker Boehner officially invited President Obama to give his address on Tuesday, January 20 at 9PM, which will be the President’s first speech to a Republican-controlled House and Senate.


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