The State of the Union as we know it is a supercharged joint address to Congress at the invitation of the Speaker of the House, who presides over the event along with the Vice President. But throughout history, presidents have fulfilled their constitutional duty to update Congress in a variety of ways. The process has evolved over time into a blockbuster act of political theater — a far cry from a memo to lawmakers.
Here are the key features of the modern State of the Union, how it came to be and what to expect from Tuesday evening:
The entire event focuses on the President’s address to a joint session of Congress. But the Constitution doesn’t actually require any of the trappings we normally associate with this phenomenon: Rather, Article II, Section 3 simply says that the President “shall from time to time communicate to Congress information of the state of the union, and Recommend such measures as he may judge necessary and expedient.
The nation’s first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both gave “Annual Message” speeches during their terms in office, although Washington delivered his first in New York rather than Washington. Thomas Jefferson chose to fulfill his constitutional duty by sending a written letter to Congress, which some historians believe he did because he was a shy public speaker. Each of his successors followed suit until Woodrow Wilson brought back the speeches in person in 1913 in a move that stunned Washington.
The time, place and name of the speech also depends on the President. Franklin D. Roosevelt popularized the “State of the Union” address, Lyndon B. Johnson chose to hold the ceremony in the evening for a prime-time national audience, and Ronald Reagan made the distinction in his first speech for president. Made it a routine. State of the Union address before Congress, to elevate the importance of the latter. For example, Biden called his first speech on Capitol Hill an “address before a joint session of Congress.”
To say that the State of the Union attracts a powerful cross-section of Washington would be an understatement. All members of the House and Senate, all nine Supreme Court justices, the President’s Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and more than 100 ambassadors to the United States have been invited to attend. (It’s no wonder that one cabinet member is designated as a “designated survivor” each year so that the speech can sit elsewhere in case disaster strikes the rest of the country’s leadership.)
The reactions of the participants have become part of the political game. According to White House transcripts for the past two decades, audience applause has consistently reached more than 100 per address for Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Biden. It has become routine for the political press to report on which lines are applauded, which party’s legislators attend and how long the applause lasts.
On the other hand, negative reactions from audience members have also become a regular feature of these addresses, as when Democrats protested Trump’s comments about his immigration policies in 2018 and Republican Joe Wilson (RS.C.) shouted “You lie!” During Obama’s first address to Congress. Biden’s 2022 address drew heckling from Reps. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) and Lauren Bobert (R-Colo.) as he talked about border security and veterans.
The President and the Speaker of the House can invite up to 24 persons to sit in the Speaker’s box with the spouse of the President respectively. Each member of Congress also has to invite one guest.
Reagan began the tradition of acknowledging guests during the address when he invited Lenny Skotnik, a federal employee who died in January 1982 after Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into a river shortly after takeoff. A woman was rescued from the frozen waters of the Potomac. During his address, the president recognized Skutnik as an example of “the countless, quiet, everyday heroes of American life.”
Every president since has invited guests — including veterans, bereaved families, and individuals, like Skutnik, who have performed exceptionally well in moments of crisis — to illustrate the points of their speeches. invited to Members of Congress often do the same.
While these invitees are often local heroes, some will be nationally known this year: The Congressional Black Caucus invited the parents of Tyr Nichols, the black man who was fatally shot by police officers in Memphis last month. He died after being beaten painfully. Also invited: Brandon Tse, who disarmed the gunman during last month’s Monterey Park, Calif., shooting that killed 11 people.
As the State of the Union has evolved from a constitutional act into a televised political manifesto, the event has formal responses in the political arena. Responses to the President’s speech are now given across political parties and various congressional caucuses and in multiple languages.
While answering is a high honor, the gig can be risky for any rising political star, risking making gaffes that have tarnished his public image for years. Then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s (D) prerecorded response to Reagan in 1985 was a stepping stone on his path to the White House, but it also made clear the pitfalls of a prescripted response. No party has done so since then. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) almost immediately turned into a meme for reaching for a glass of water while giving his response.
This year, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders will deliver a Republican response to Biden’s remarks. The progressive Working Families Party has tapped freshman Rep. Delia C. Ramirez (D-Ill.) to offer its response this year.
Recent presidents have aimed their messages not only at the various politicians in the room but also at the nation as a whole. The speech regularly draws millions of viewers on prime-time television.
The speech will be carried on major broadcast and cable news channels, including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, PBS and Fox News. The Washington Post will host a live stream of the event with anchor coverage and commentary. The White House will also broadcast the program on its website.
Social media and other forms of online sharing have ensured that highlights of the event can circulate after the President delivers his presentation live and in person. Scenes like Trump announcing the presidential awards and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi mockingly clapping behind him and tearing up a copy of his address are recent examples of the State of the Union being enough to pass the address. After a long period of political and cultural life.
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