State of the Union Address

Blog Post

January 31, 2013

Putting One Over on Teddy

Historical Highlight

Including President Barack H. Obama’s 2014 address, there have been a total of 93 in person Annual Messages/State of the Union Addresses. Since President Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 address, there have been a total of 81 in person addresses.

Origins and Authorization

The formal basis for the State of the Union Address is from the U.S. Constitution:

  • 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.” Article II, Section 3, Clause 1.

The constitutionally mandated presidential address has gone through a few name changes:

  • It was formally known as the Annual Message from 1790 to 1946.
  • It began to be informally called the "state of the Union" message/address from 1942 to 1946.
  • Since 1947 it has officially been known as the State of the Union Address.

Earlier Annual Messages of the President included agency budget requests and general reports on the health of the economy. During the 20th century, Congress required more-specialized reports on these two aspects, separate from the Annual Message.

  • Budget Message, required by the National Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 (42 Stat. 20) to be delivered to Congress no more than two weeks after Congress convenes in January.
  • Economic Report, required by the Employment Act of 1946 (60 Stat. 23), with a flexible delivery date.

Over time, as the message content changed, the focus of the State of the Union also changed:

  • In the 19th century, the annual message was both a lengthy administrative report on the various departments of the executive branch and a budget and economic message.
  • After 1913, when Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of presenting the message to Congress in person, it became a platform for the President to rally support for his agenda.
  • Technological changes—radio, television, and the Internet—further developed the State of the Union into a forum for the President to speak directly to the American people.

Technological Change

  • First radio broadcast of Message: President Calvin Coolidge, 1923.
  • First television broadcast of Message: President Harry Truman, 1947.
  • First televised evening delivery of Message: President Lyndon Johnson, 1965.
  • First live webcast on Internet: President George W. Bush, 2002.
  • First high definition television broadcast of Message, President George W. Bush, 2004.

Historical Highlights

  • The longest: President James Earl (Jimmy) Carter 33,878 words in 1981 (written). President William J. (Bill) Clinton 9,190 words in 1995 (spoken).1
  • The shortest: President George Washington, 1790, 1,089 words.2
  • Average length: 19th century was about 10,000 words; late 20th century, about 5,000 words.
  • Most Messages/Addresses given: President Franklin Roosevelt, 12 (10 were personal appearances before Congress).
  • Fewest Messages/Addresses given: President Zachary Taylor, 1; President William Henry Harrison, 0; President James A. Garfield, 0.

Footnotes

1The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/sou.php (January 16, 2014).

2Ibid.