unpacking the state of the union address

Everybody’s in a tizzle over Nancy Pelosi disinviting the president from delivering the traditional State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.  Then everybody got in a tizzle over Donald Trump just cancelling the whole thing instead of finding another venue from which to deliver the speech.

If you ask me, it’s all more examples of Donny and The Nance acting like children instead of leaders, but that’s a discussion for another time.

This whole the president delivering a speech in front of a joint session of Congress thing is a tradition, anyway, not law.  George Washington addressed Congress, as did John Adams, but Thomas Jefferson said fuck that noise and sent his update to Congress in the form of a hand-written letter. Seems Jefferson felt the whole ritual smacked too much of what the kings of England used to do, so he ditched it.  Once the speeches started back up, they weren’t even called State of the Union addresses until Franklin Roosevelt started calling them that during the Great Depression. The name is catchy and it stuck.

For about 100 years after Jefferson ditched the speeches, presidents submitted written updates to Congress, not giving speeches at all.  That changed in 1913, when Woodrow Wilson gave his speech before Congress.  This was a big deal, not because Wilson was addressing Congress, but because everybody could see Europe headed towards war and Wilson wanted to push his agenda of neutrality.

The reality of the situation is this: the US Constitution requires the president to inform Congress “from time to time” about the state of the union.  Bottom line is that the president is required to do this, but there is nothing mandating it be an annual update, or even done regularly at all.  Congress has to agree to allow the president to give a speech to both chambers – aka a “joint session” – and that’s where we are.

Congress doesn’t have to allow the president to give the speech in their building, and the president doesn’t have to give a speech, let alone even submit an update to Congress on anything resembling a regular schedule.  Those two things – the speech part and the annual part – are simple traditions established by previous presidents and Congresses.  Sometimes there are even two updates given – one by an outgoing president at the end of his term and another by the incoming president at the start of his.

Some interesting facts for you – Jimmy Carter was the last president to submit only a written update, in 1981; Warren Harding delivered the first update broadcast on radio, in 1922; Harry Truman delivered the first update broadcast on television, in 1947; post-address commentary was added to the television broadcast for the first time in 1968 – Lyndon Johnson was president then; Bill Clinton delivered the first update streamed live on the internet, in 1997; the first response to the update given in Spanish was done by Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) in 2004; only one scheduled update has been postponed so far – Ronald Reagan pushed back his 1986 update due to the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger; only one scheduled update has so far been indefinitely postponed* – Donald Trump did this in 2019.

* This was initially written as “cancelled,” but Trump’s 2019 address has not been cancelled, but rather postponed indefinitely.

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