Frequently Asked Questions
What is the State of the Union Message?
The State of the Union Message is a communication from the President of the United States to Congress and the nation in which the Chief Executive reports on conditions in the United States and abroad; recommends a legislative program or the coming session of Congress, and frequently presents his views about and vision for the present and future.
What section of the Constitution authorizes the message?
Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution authorizes the State of the Union Message, saying:
He [the President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;
Has the message always been known by this name?
The message was generally known as "the President's Annual Message to Congress" until well into the 20 century. Although some historians suggest that the phrase "State of the Union" emerged only after World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt's 1934 message is identified in his papers as his "Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union."
When and where was the first State of the Union Message
delivered, and by which President? What was the early practice?
President George Washington delivered the first message before a joint session of Congress in New York on January 8, 1790. During the administrations of Presidents Washington and Adams, the President customarily appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver the address personally. Each House subsequently debated and approved official replies to the President's message, which were then delivered personally to the President by delegations of Senators and Representatives.
When did the President stop delivering the message personally,
and why? How long did this practice persist?
President Thomas Jefferson changed the procedure followed by his predecessors with his first annual message (December 8, 1801). His private secretary delivered copies of the message to both houses of Congress, to be read by clerks in the House and Senate. Jefferson's change was intended to simplify a ceremony that he believed to be an aristocratic imitation of the British monarch's "Speech from the Throne," and thus unsuitable to a republic. Furthermore, preparing a response in Congress consumed valuable time during short legislative sessions.
Who revived the tradition of personal presidential appearances?
Jefferson's precedent was followed until April 8, 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress to personally deliver a special message on tariff and bank reform. President Wilson 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. Wilson subsequently delivered six of his annual messages in person (1913-1918); President Warren Harding, two (1921 and 1922); and President Calvin Coolidge, one (1923). President Herbert Hoover made no personal appearances before Congress. President Franklin Roosevelt established the personal appearance as a permanent tradition with his 1934 State of the Union Message.
In recent times, has the President always delivered the
State of the Union Message personally?
Since World War II, Presidents have occasionally chosen not to deliver a State of the Union Message in person. President Truman sent his last message only in printed form, a practice subsequently followed by Presidents Eisenhower (1961) and Jimmy Carter (1981). In 1956, President Eisenhower was recuperating from a heart attack and was unable to deliver his message personally. From his Key West, Florida, retreat, he prepared a seven-minute filmed summary of a message that was subsequently broadcast nationwide. When President Richard Nixon sent a printed message to Congress in 1973, his staff explained that "no oral message was planned because it would follow closely on the heels of Nixon's second inaugural address."
When and where does the ceremony take place?
Until the 20th amendment changed the opening time for congressional sessions, the Annual Message was delivered in December. Since 1934, messages have been delivered on a range of dates, between January 3 and February 2 of each year. The State of the Union Message is now delivered in the chamber of the House of Representatives before a joint session of both houses of Congress.
In modern-day practice, is there a State of the Union Message every year?
There have been occasional variations concerning the State of the Union Message since World War II. Some recent Presidents (Reagan in 1981, Bush in 1989, and Clinton in 1993, for instance) have chosen not to give an official State of the Union Message the year they were first inaugurated as President, having just previously delivered a keynote inaugural address. Some (such as Reagan and Bush) have chosen not to give a message immediately prior to their departure from office (although President Reagan delivered a televised farewell address from the Oval Office on January 8, 1989). On the other hand, outgoing and incoming Presidents have occasionally given successive State of the Union Messages within weeks of each other. For instance, President Truman's final message, delivered in printed form to Congress on January 7, 1953, was followed by President Dwight Eisenhower's first message, delivered in person at the Capitol on February 7 of the same year. This circumstance was repeated by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy in 1961.
Which was the shortest message? The longest?
Most evidence on the length of State of the Union Messages is anecdotal, as comprehensive information has not been collected. For the record, however, President Washington's first annual message was surely one of the shortest, comprising only 833 words. If generally accepted 20th century speech guidelines (which range from 115 to 175 words per minute) are used to calculate the length of time he spoke, Washington would have taken between four and seven minutes to deliver his first annual address. According to various sources, President Harry Truman's 1946 message was the longest to date, at over 25,000 words. This was a unique effort, as it combined both the State of the Union and Annual Budget Messages, and was not delivered personally by the President. Following Jefferson's abandonment of personal delivery, annual messages tended to grow in length throughout the 19th century, often reaching more than 10,000 words, and became, in effect, an annual report from the executive branch to Congress. This trend was reversed by Wilson and Roosevelt's return to the practice of personal delivery. In more recent times, the message tends to be measured in delivery time, rather than in the number of words it contains.
Which President delivered the most messages? Which the fewest? Has any President
not delivered a message?
The longest-serving President, Franklin Roosevelt, holds the record for the most State of the Union Messages delivered - 12 - of which 10 were personal appearances before Congress. President Zachary Taylor submitted only one written Annual Message, in 1849. Two Presidents did not serve long enough to submit an Annual Message: William Henry Harrison, who died in 1841, 32 days after his inauguration, and James Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881 after serving only 199 days.
How have radio and television affected the message?
President Coolidge delivered the first Annual Message to be broadcast by radio, in 1923. President Truman's 1947 State of the Union Message was the first to be broadcast by television. Free air time for the President's message and the opposition response is currently provided as a public service by commercial, public broadcast and cable networks. The advent of mass electronic communications dramatically affected the format, audience, and impact of the message. Commanding a steadily growing audience of listeners and viewers, successive Presidents learned to use the occasion as an appeal to the nation: the message evolved from being a report to Congress to a direct address to the American people, a platform from which the President announced, explained, and promoted his legislative agenda. President Lyndon Johnson recognized the importance of the national audience in 1965, when he changed the traditional time for his State of the Union Message from mid-afternoon to 9:00 p.m. to attract the largest number of viewers, a practice all of his successors have adopted.
What procedures are currently followed when the President
delivers the message?
A House concurrent resolution, agreed to by both chambers, sets aside a certain date and time for a joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate "for receiving such communication as the President of the United States shall be pleased to make to them." At the appointed time, the Senators cross the Capitol to the House chamber, where seats are reserved for them; the Speaker and the Vice President (in his capacity as President of the Senate) occupy seats at the dais, and the Speaker presides. Each house then appoints a committee whose members escort the President to the chamber, where his presence is announced by the Doorkeeper of the House of Representatives. The Speaker then introduces the President, who delivers his address. Customarily, one member of the President's Cabinet does not attend, in order to provide continuity in the line of succession in the event a catastrophe kills or disables the President, the Vice President, and other succeeding officers gathered in the House chamber. In a recent innovation initiated by President Ronald Reagan, the Chief Executive will frequently invite citizens who have distinguished themselves in some field to be his personal guests in the gallery. Usually, the achievements or programs for which he publicly salutes them also serve to underscore some major element of his message.
When did the opposition response originate?
In 1966, Senator Everett Dirksen and Representative Gerald Ford made a televised joint Republican response to President Johnson's message, a practice that has since become a regular feature and is usually broadcast shortly after the President has completed his remarks. The format for the opposition response varies, but it usually includes remarks by one or more party leaders (almost always Senators, Representatives, or state governors), who are nationally known, or are considered to be promising emerging political figures.
Adapted from CRS Report for Congress on the President's State of the Union Message, January 1999.
to State of the Union History Page
to State of the Union Home Page