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The State of the Union address’s history, explained 

President Joe Biden is scheduled to deliver his first State of the Union address Tuesday night at the US Capitol. The speech comes amid the biggest military crisis in Europe since the Cold War as Russia continues its assault on Ukraine after launching an unprovoked attack on the nation. It also comes amid record inflation and spiking consumer prices, and as many Americans feel fatigued during a pandemic that has stretched into its third year.

Biden addressed the chamber on April 28, 2021, the eve of his first 100 days in office, but the upcoming speech will be his first annual message since taking the Oath of Office over a year ago.

Why else is the State of the Union so important? And why does it play a pivotal role in the presidency? Here’s what to know:

What is the state of the Union?

The State of the Union Message is a message from the President to Congress, usually given once a year in January or February. In the message, the President talks about important issues facing Americans and offers his ideas on solving the nation’s problems, including suggestions for new laws and policies.

The tradition of giving a State of the Union Address is rooted in the U.S. Constitution. Article II, Section 3 stipulates: 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.” Although the Constitution doesn’t define “from time to time,” by tradition presidents convey that message once each year. The Constitution says nothing about when the president should deliver the information or how he should deliver it. Until 1934, the State of the Union message was typically delivered in December rather than January.

Why Is it Necessary?

The Constitution of the United States requires that the President give Congress a State of the Union message from time to time on the condition of the country.   Some Presidents delivered their message in writing — others have given a speech.   This year, President Clinton will deliver his State of the Union Message on Thursday, January 27 at 9:00 p.m. 

How Does it Work?

On State of the Union night, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate gather together in the House chamber, along with the Speaker of the House and the Vice President (who is also President of the Senate). The Speaker and the Vice President sit on the dais, a raised platform directly behind where the President speaks. When the President arrives, he is escorted to the chamber by members of both the House and the Senate. The arrival of the President is announced by the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Representatives. The Speaker then introduces the President, who delivers his speech to the Congress. 

In custom, one member of the President’s Cabinet does not attend the State of the Union address. This way, if a catastrophe should happen that harms the President, the Vice President, and the other members of the Cabinet who are attending, the Cabinet Secretary who did not attend could then take over the duties of the President. 

The President usually invites several American citizens to the House chamber for his State of the Union message. These citizens have been invited because they have done something extraordinary. During his speech, the President introduces them and honors them for their achievements. 

After the State of the Union message, there is an “opposition response.” This gives the opposing political party a chance to express their views on what the President said. Usually, they will offer suggestions different from the President’s on how to improve America. 

Who is invited to the State of the Union?

Invitations to the address are extended to members and former members of the House and Senate, the President’s Cabinet — save for the “designated survivor,” or cabinet official in the line of succession in case of an unforeseen calamity — the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief Justice of the United States and the Justices of the Supreme Court and the Diplomatic Corps. The president may also invite personal guests to sit in the first lady’s “viewing box” in the gallery overlooking the House floor.

Here are some facts:

The State of the Union address wasn’t always called that. Presidents from George Washington through Herbert Hoover called their annual message to Congress just that, the “Annual Message.” FDR began the tradition of calling it “the State of the Union address.” 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt giving his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 7, 1943.AP file

For more than a century, the State of the Union was delivered to Congress in writing rather than in a speech before a joint session of Congress. George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address—or “Annual Message” if you prefer—in person and in New York. 

George Washington delivers his inaugural address before members of Congress. (Universal History Archive / UIG / Getty)

Thomas Jefferson, however, abandoned the in-person speech for the written message. Jefferson felt that delivering an address before Congress was too aristocratic and similar to practices in monarchies.

President Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)(GETTY IMAGES)

Technology has expanded the State of the Union’s audience. Calvin Coolidge was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast by radio (1923). Truman was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast on television (1947). Bill Clinton was the first president to have his State of the Union message broadcast over the Internet (1997).

President Harry S. Truman delivered the first televised presidential address from the White House.

Two presidents never delivered an Annual Message or State of the Union Address. William Henry Harrison and James Garfield both died before they had the chance to deliver one, Harrison from pneumonia in 1841 and Garfield from an assassin’s bullet in 1881.

James Garfield as a brigadier general during the Civil War.

Richard Nixon holds the record for shortest State of the Union speech.

President Richard Nixon delivers his State of the Union address to Congress Jan. 22, 1971. Seated behind the president are Vice President Spiro Agnew, left, and speaker of the house Carl Albert. | AP Photo

The longest State of the Union was delivered by President Bill Clinton in 2000, clocking in at about 89 minutes.

President Bill Clinton gives his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in January 2000, as Vice President Al Gore, left, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., listen. (Photo: Win McNamee/AP)

Carter holds the record for the longest State of the Union address. His 1981 address, which he (thankfully) delivered to Congress in writing rather than in person, ran 33,667 words. (That’s the last time the State of the Union was delivered in writing.)

President Jimmy Carter listens to a question from his audience in Yazoo, Mississippi, in July 1977. Photograph: Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images

President Ronald Reagan started the practice of inviting special guests.

President Ronald Reagan with Vice President George H.W. Bushand House Speaker Jim Wright during the 1988 State of the Union address.

Trump is the second president in US history to deliver a State of the Union address after being impeached. 

In 2019, Trump became the first president in history to be disinvited from delivering the State of the Union address. But his address was eventually rescheduled.

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