The State of Union: An ever-changing message

President Barack Obama during the 2015 State of the Union.
President Barack Obama during the 2015 State of the Union.
White House Photo by Pete Souza.

    The State of the Union address has become a tweetable moment, an opportunity for history buffs, politicos and anyone else with a smartphone to engage in poignant and not-so-poignant one-liners.

     In his weekly address, Obama said his staff was "cooking up new ways you can watch and engage with the speech," scheduled for Jan. 12. It will be his final State of the Union report, and, according to multiple accounts, it will be nontraditional.
     The message is mandated by Article II, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, which directs 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."
     But while the address is mandated, presidents have differed in their approach. Here are some examples:   
  • The first president to give the annual message was George Washington, naturally, and he gave the address in person in the Senate Chamber of Federal Hall in New York City, the temporary seat of government, recounts the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. John Adams followed the tradition, also giving the address in person.
  • The third president, Thomas Jefferson, didn’t give the address in person, choosing instead to send a written report. For a century afterward, other presidents did the same.
  • Presidents who never presented a State of the Union: Elected as the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison never gave the annual message required by the Constitution. He didn't live long enough. Harrison famously gave a lengthy inauguration address -- one hour and 40 minutes -- on March 4, 1841. He was “outdoors in a brisk March wind without hat, gloves or overcoat,” recounts The Complete Book of Presidents, by William A. DeGregorio and Sandra Lee Stuart, (Barricade Books; 2013). Harrison soon became ill and died April 4, 1841, a month after his presidency began. The 20th president, James Garfield, also never gave the annual message. He took office March 4, 1881, and was shot July 2, 1881, by the mentally unstable Charles J. Guiteau. Garfield died Sept. 19, 1881.         
  • In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of giving the message in person. Wilson also "is credited with reinventing the annual message, transforming it from a report on the activities of the executive departments into a blueprint for the president's legislative program for the coming congressional session and year," according to the National Archives.  See Wilson's 1913 State of the Union address on the American Presidency Project website.
  • The first president to give the message by radio was Calvin Coolidge in 1923.
  • The words "state of the union," are part of the Constitution, but the term wasn't commonly used until the 20th Century. It was called the president's annual message to Congress until the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Roosevelt's papers, his 1934 message is called the “Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union.” In the 1940s, the message became informally known as the State of the Union. (See the Congressional Research Service report: The president's State of the Union message, frequently asked questions.)
  • In 1947, President Harry S. Truman became the first to have his message televised.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson was the first president to understand the importance of prime time. In 1965, he changed the time of the speech, usually given in midafternoon, to 9 p.m., the Congressional Research Service recounts, "the better to attract the largest number of television viewers, a practice all his successors have continued."

     To know more:


     The State of the Union: An Ender's Game 

     Governor or senator: Which one makes a better president?

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