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–by Joanna Hallac

It is mid-January at the Capitol, and that means that the members of Congress are back from their holiday vacations and are preparing for the President’s annual “State of the Union” address, delivered to a joint session nearly every January (as you’ll read, there are some years where there is no official SOTU speech, and it has not always been delivered in January). The State of the Union speech gives each President a chance to lay out to a joint session of Congress and the American people their legislative and policy priorities for the coming year, but since the first address was delivered it has undergone serious changes as President Obama gets ready to deliver his third such speech since taking office. What is the history behind this annual ritual? I’m so glad you asked!

George Washington's First Annual Address, 1790 (Library of Congress)

As many of you may know, Article II, section 3, clause 1 of our Constitution mandates that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” So, how did we get from there to where we are today with the State of the Union address? Well, not surprisingly, George Washington was the first to deliver what was originally called the “Annual Message,” a name it kept from 1790 to 1934, setting the precedent for a yearly presidential address to Congress. It became unofficially known as the State of the Union from 1942 to 1946, with the title becoming official since 1947. Additionally, the address was delivered in person by Presidents Washington and Adams; however, Thomas Jefferson altered the original practice and instead sent a written message to Congress rather than appearing in person to deliver the speech. Not until Woodrow Wilson in 1913 did any President return to the original precedent set by Washington and Adams, although there were still some presidents that would send in a written address after this point, but not since George H.W. Bush has any President not delivered the State of Union in person and on live television (except for outgoing presidents, as will be discussed).

So what else about the State of the Union has changed since 1790? The answer: quite a lot. As mentioned, the address was given mostly in writing until 1913; however, even when Woodrow Wilson returned to giving the speech in person, it was worked into to the regular congressional workday, usually delivered in the morning. As media technology changed and improved, so too did the State of the Union. The first address to be broadcast over the radio was in 1923 when Calvin Coolidge was in office; the first televised address came two decades later when Harry Truman delivered his 1947 address. It was not until 1965 that LBJ moved the State of the Union to the evening in order to guarantee larger viewership. It was also at this time that it became commonplace to judge the speeches not just on content, but also by how many times there was applause and standing ovations, transforming the address from an informative and important policy speech into something more like a presidential “pep rally.” Nonetheless, it is clearly still something that many Americans care about and tune into, with 43 million viewers watching President Obama’s address in 2011, down from 48 million in 2010.

President Obama's State of the Union address, 2011 (U.S. House of Representatives)

Since it became a televised, evening address, only once has the State of the Union speech been canceled. In 1986, President Reagan canceled the address after the Challenger disaster occurred earlier in the day the speech was to take place; it was eventually rescheduled. Reagan set the modern precedent for outgoing presidents of sending in a written version to Congress (so as not to upstage the newly elected, incoming President) and forgoing an in-person speech, as the inaugural address of the new President usually serves the dual purpose of both inaugural and State of the Union addresses, as it did for President Obama in 2009 (this is not always the case, however, such as with George H.W. Bush in 1989).

So, what awaits us this evening when President Obama delivers his third official State of the Union address? Well, last year he was the first President to ever use the words bubble, supermajority, and obesity in a State of the Union, according to historical data compiled by the New York Times. Perhaps he will be the first to coin other words and phrases this year? In terms of other words that have been used in SOTU speeches since 1934 (that’s when the Times began compiling the data), the circumstances we are living in at that time tend to dictate which words occur and with what level of frequency. During times of economic downturns, such as 1975, 1981, 1991, and 2002, the word jobs saw a spike in its mentions. Other words that have been popular with the last three presidents are: invest, deficit, small business, Social Security, health care, compete, and innovate, with the last being used far more by Democrats than Republicans. The word tax has received popularity since 1934, although surely has been used in different contexts based on which party the President was from. The word power was far more popular from the 1930s to 1950s than it is today, while the word freedom shows spikes throughout the 1930s to 1960s, then again in the 1980s under Reagan and lastly, under President George W. Bush; President Obama has hardly mentioned the word freedom in any speeches to Congress since taking office. One last interesting note, the word bipartisan has barely been used since 1934 and the two presidents to mention it often were Reagan, 23 times, and Clinton, 41 times. I will let you all read into that what you like.

The one constant in this annual Presidential address that we can all remember hearing year in and year out is that famous first line—“the state of our Union is strong.” While that has been a debatable point throughout our history, just as it is today, President Obama is likely to stick with this traditionally optimistic opening sentiment, as most Americans probably want to hear our President say that even if we don’t necessarily believe it’s true. Regardless of what is or is not said in tonight’s speech, what is certain is that this address is an American tradition steeped in history, but also one that has seen tremendous changes over time, especially in terms of the impact that technology has had upon its delivery and content.

Be sure to tune in tonight to watch President Obama deliver his 3rd State of the Union address to the Congress, not only to hear what is on the President’s policy agenda for the coming year, but also to listen for how many times he says jobs and how many rounds of applause and standing ovations he gets! As always, keep the comments and questions coming, as we so enjoy hearing from our loyal readers.

Sources consulted:

The New York Times

The House of Representatives, Art and History