Article II, Section 3 of the United Sates Constitution requires of the President that: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”. While the language is nonspecific, the President traditionally makes his report sometime in late January or early February.
On January 8, 1790, a joint session of Congress gathered to receive the first such address. It wasn’t where you might think. A mob of angry soldiers had converged on Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1783, demanding payment for their service in the Revolution. The Congress fled Pennsylvania all the way to New York. It wouldn’t be until July 6 of 1790 that Congress passed the Residence Act, placing the permanent seat of the Federal Government on the “River Potomack”. For the time being, the government was conducting its business in Federal Hall, built in 1700 as New York City Hall.
President George Washington delivered that first regular annual message before a joint session of Congress, but Thomas Jefferson ended the practice in 1801, considering it “too monarchical”. Instead, he wrote his annual message and sent it to Congress where it was read by a clerk, starting a tradition which would last for over 112 years.
Woodrow Wilson delivered the message himself in 1913, re-establishing the old practice in spite of initial criticism.
Today we call it the “State of the Union”, but that term didn’t come around until Franklin Roosevelt used it in 1934. In prior years, it was “the President’s Annual Message to Congress”.
Most of the Presidents who followed would deliver the message in person, though not all. 1981 was an inauguration year and the last of three when we had two SOTUs: Jimmy Carter’s written address, and the personal State of the Union address from the incoming President, Ronald Reagan. The first two were 1953 with the transition from the Truman Presidency to that of Eisenhower, and the Eisenhower/Kennedy transition of 1961.
Woodrow Wilson was the first sitting President to address the Congress at night, when he asked for the declaration that brought us into WWI. President Roosevelt set a precedent in 1936 when he delivered the SOTU address at night, and it’s been a nighttime event ever since.
Calvin Coolidge’s 1923 address was the first to be broadcast on radio, and Harry S. Truman’s 1947 State of the Union was the first to be broadcast on television. Bill Clinton’s 1997 SOTU was the first to be broadcast live on the internet.
For a time, television networks imposed a time limit on the address. That ended with Lyndon Johnson’s SOTU in 1968, the first address followed by extensive commentary, provided by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Milton Friedman, among others.
The 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster forced President Reagan to postpone his State of the Union for a week, the first time the address had ever been so postponed.
In the electronic age, the media business model depends on the ability to rent an audience to a sponsor. The SOTU is usually go-to programming, but not always. In 1997, Bill Clinton prepared to deliver his State of the Union, as a California jury delivered the verdict in OJ’s civil trial. Coverage decisions must have made media executives pull their hair out. Lucky for them, the verdict came in just as Clinton was finishing up. CBS, ABC and CNN stayed with the President’s address. NBC did likewise, while its cable affiliate MSNBC switched to the verdict. At least one CBS affiliate split the screen and showed both.
It’s customary for at least one cabinet member to act as “designated survivor”, remaining away from the address in case some catastrophic event takes out the President along with the first three in line of succession: the Vice President, Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate. Since the Islamist terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, a few members of Congress are asked to stay away as well. These few are relocated to an undisclosed location where they would form the nucleus of a “rump congress”, in case of some unforeseen and catastrophic disaster.
When now-President Elect Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union address, he will preside over a fiscal operating debt of $19.95 Trillion, $1.03 Trillion higher than the day Barack Obama delivered his last and $8.9 Trillion higher than his first. My fellow pachyderms are so fond of talking about fiscal responsibility. I’d hope this first Republican President in eight years will talk about unplugging the national ATM from our kids’ credit cards, and putting an end to this generational theft. Or at least slowing it down, but I’m not holding my breath.