Yesterday I summarized the challenges that President Joe Biden faces when he gives the State of the Union address tonight. While we wait to see what Biden will say, I thought I would resurface and update my primer on ten facts worth knowing about the State of the Union address.
1. The tradition of giving a State of the Union address is rooted in the U.S. Constitution. Article II, Section 3 stipulates: 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.” Although the Constitution doesn’t define “from time to time,” by tradition presidents convey that message once each year. The Constitution says nothing about when or how the president should deliver the information. Until 1934, the State of the Union message was typically delivered in December rather than January or February. Biden is the first president to deliver an in-person State of the Union address in March.
2. For more than a century, the State of the Union was delivered to Congress in writing rather than in a speech before a joint session of Congress. George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address—or “Annual Message” if you prefer—in person and in New York. (The Big Apple was the capital of the United States from 1785 to 1790.) John Adams did likewise during his one term in office. Thomas Jefferson, however, abandoned the in-person speech for the written message, perhaps because he wasn’t a great public speaker. Presidents followed Jefferson’s lead until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of giving a speech. Ever since FDR, presidents have almost always used speeches rather than written messages to fulfill their constitutional obligation to inform Congress about the State of the Union.
3. The State of the Union address wasn’t always called that. Presidents from George Washington through Herbert Hoover called their annual message to Congress just that, the “Annual Message.” FDR began the tradition of calling it "the State of the Union address.”
4. Ronald Reagan began the tradition of not calling a president’s first speech to a joint session of Congress a State of the Union address. Reagan’s predecessors had no qualms about giving a State of the Union address immediately upon assuming office. John F. Kennedy, for instance, gave a State of the Union speech on January 30, 1961, ten days after taking the oath of office. (That speech stands as the most alarming State of the Union address ever delivered. Kennedy said that he was speaking at an “hour of national peril,” that “the American economy is in trouble,” “our cities are engulfed in squalor,” and “our supply of clean water is dwindling,” but that “all these problems pale when placed beside those which confront us around the world” as “we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger.” Yes, that is what we think of as the good old days.) Reagan, however, called his 1981 speech an “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery.” All of Reagan’s successors, including Biden, have followed that precedent and declined to call their first speech to a joint session of Congress a State of the Union address. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all called their messages “Administration Goals” speeches. Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Biden all called their first speeches simply an “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress.”
5. During presidential transition years, Congress sometimes receives annual messages from two presidents within a span of weeks. Outgoing presidents can give a State of the Union address even if the incoming president is likely to do the same. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter all delivered an annual message in their final weeks in office, though only LBJ and Ford did it as a speech to a joint session of Congress.
6. Some presidents go short in their State of the Union addresses, some go long—very long. Washington holds the record for brevity, using just 1,089 words in 1790. That’s slightly longer than a typical newspaper op-ed. Among presidents since LBJ, Richard Nixon holds the record for shortest State of the Union speech. His 1972 address clocked in at a shade under 29 minutes. Carter holds the record for the longest State of the Union address. His 1981 address, which he (thankfully) delivered to Congress in writing rather than in person, ran 33,667 words. (That’s the last time the State of the Union was delivered in writing.) Clinton holds the record for the longest State of the Union address delivered in person, whether that is measured by the number of words (9,190 in 1995) or by the time it took to deliver (one hour, twenty-eight minutes, and forty-nine seconds in 2000). Biden’s address to Congress last year ran a comparatively brief one hour, five minutes, and eight seconds.
7. The prose in State of the Union addresses has gotten simpler over time. The linguistic complexity of State of the Union addresses has declined over the past century as presidents shifted from speaking to lawmakers to addressing the country at large.
8. Two presidents never delivered an Annual Message or State of the Union address. William Henry Harrison and James Garfield both died before they had the chance to deliver one, Harrison from disease in 1841 and Garfield from an assassin’s bullet in 1881.
9. Technology has expanded the State of the Union’s audience. Calvin Coolidge was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast on radio (1923). Truman was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast on television (1947). Clinton was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast over the Internet (1997).
10. While most State of the Union addresses are only remembered by those who wrote them, the ones with a lasting impact have often tackled foreign policy. James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine in his annual message in 1823. Theodore Roosevelt added his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in his annual message in 1904. FDR unveiled his “Four Freedoms” in his 1941 State of the Union address. And George W. Bush warned of the “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. Biden no doubt hopes that his speech tonight will have a similar impact.
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.