The State of the Union is a significant event for every president and member of Congress, marking the only occasion when the entire cabinet, Supreme Court, and Joint Chiefs of Staff come together in one room. In the era of prime-time coverage, the State of the Union provides a unique opportunity for the president to reach a nationwide television audience, and for members of Congress to be seen by the same audience.
The origins of the State of the Union can be traced back to the Constitution, which requires the president to give Congress information about the state of the union and recommend any necessary measures. The tradition of the president delivering the State of the Union annually started with George Washington, who decided that the “time to time” referred to roughly once a year. The term “State of the Union” was first used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and became widely used in the 1940s when the event was first shown on television.
The evolution of the State of the Union speech can be divided into five phases, each of which reflects the changes in the country. The first phase, Founding Federalists, was in the 1790s when the speeches were delivered live before Congress. Washington delivered the first Annual Message to Congress on January 8, 1790, in person, at the Federal Hall in New York City. The first Annual Message was brief, with Washington limiting himself to fewer than 1,100 words, which took around 10 minutes to deliver.
The longest State of the Union was delivered by President Jimmy Carter in 1981 and consisted of more than 33,000 words in written form only. Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump each delivered their State of the Union addresses for over an hour.
Washington’s first speech before Congress set a precedent, as he delivered his plans and expectations for their relationship in person. The speech was brief but substantial, containing suggestions for promoting science and literature. Washington delivered seven more Annual Messages to Congress, starting in December 1790 and continuing until his final year in office in 1796.
The second phase, the Silent Era, was when presidents did not deliver their speeches. John Adams, Washington’s vice president and successor, continued the tradition of making his report to Congress in person. However, Thomas Jefferson, who was elected president in 1800, broke with tradition by announcing that he would make his report to the new Congress in writing and would not be standing up in the Capitol building to deliver the speech himself. Jefferson was not comfortable with the idea of federal power, and executive power in particular, and thought that a president proclaiming his policy preferences smacked of a “speech from the throne.”
In the mid-1960s, the broadcasts of the State of the Union moved from daytime to prime-time, turning the event into appointment viewing for much of the country, greatly increasing its potential to drive political events. The State of the Union is still an important event today, providing the president with a platform to outline their policy goals and priorities, and to address the nation.
Despite its significance, the State of the Union is often criticized for being dull, both on television and in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, the State of the Union remains a red-letter occasion for every president and every member of Congress, and continues to be a moment for history to be made or for familiar rhetoric and predictable posturing to take place.
In conclusion, the State of the Union has a rich history dating back to the founding of the nation, and its evolution reflects the changes in the country. From its origins as the Annual Message to Congress to its current status as a prime-time event, the State of the Union has remained an important occasion for the president to outline their policy goals and priorities and to address the nation.
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