What is the State of the Union?

State of the Union 2019: The highs and lows of the president's annual address to Congress as Donald Trump takes the floor

End of government shutdown means POTUS can give his speech a week later than originally scheduled

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Tuesday 05 February 2019 13:11
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Donald Trump's postponed State of the Union address to Congress has been rescheduled for 5 February after the longest US government shutdown in history was brought to a close.

Originally scheduled for 29 January, House speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the president not to go ahead with his speech during the diplomatic impasse and suggested he submit it by letter, a manoeuvre Republicans were quick to brand “political” and which appeared to provoke Mr Trump into denying Ms Pelosi’s congressional delegation the use of a military plane to visit troops in Afghanistan.

The president finally bowed to the speaker’s right to refuse him an invitation but can now press ahead, albeit a week later than planned.

What is the State of the Union address?

Nominally a speech to congressmen and women in the chamber of the House of Representatives assessing the current wellbeing of the American political and economic landscape, the address is really intended for the ears of the people and often sees the administration’s accomplishments presented in a flattering light.

Article II, section three of the US Constitution says of the president: “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 commmand that the speech be given “from time to time” is vague in wording, it used to be made every December to mark the close of the calender year. The passing of the 20th Amendment on 23 January 1933 saw the opening of Congress shifted from March to early January, meaning the address moved too. Since 1934, it has been made as early as 3 January and as late as 12 February.

The president has to be formally invited to the House to give his progress report by the speaker, hence the newly sworn-in Ms Pelosi having the power to delay this year’s message in light of the current state of stagnation, the debate over federal funding for Mr Trump's proposed border wall with Mexico no closer to resolution.

When it does take place, both the president and the speaker will be permitted to invite 24 guests each to witness events from their respective boxes. Only members of the Cabinet, Supreme Court justices, the diplomatic corps and military leaders have reserved seating - their entry formally announced by a deputy sergeant at arms - everyone else is invited into the chamber on a first-come, first-served basis.

The only person not to be given a seat is Cabinet’s “designated survivor”, the statesman or woman chosen to miss the occasion so they can succeed the president and vice president and form a “rump Congress” in the event of the chamber being successfully targeted by a terror attack. Last year’s was agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue.

The president himself is duly announced at the door of the chamber by the sergeant at arms and is applauded en route to the house clerk’s desk, where he hands copies of his speech in manila envelopes to the speaker and to the vice president (who sit together) before commencing.

While the content of the speech primarily concerns legislative achievements, members of the public who have undertaken acts of heroism or other distinction are sometimes invited to attend in order to be congratulated by the president.

Such guests are known as “Lenny Skutniks” after the man Ronald Reagan paid tribute to in 1982 for his courage during the Air Florida Flight 90 crash, the bystander rescuing a passenger from Washington’s Potomac River when the plane struck the capital’s 14th Street Bridge just two miles from the White House.

Once the address has been made, the opposition party to the president’s own is given the opportunity to issue a rebuttal, a custom in place since 1966. Massachusetts Democrat Joe Kennedy III, grandson of Bobby Kennedy and grandnephew of John F Kennedy, did so in 2018 and was widely praised for his performance.

What is its history?

George Washington gave the first annual message to a joint session of Congress sitting in New York City on 8 January 1790.

The formal speech was subsequently abandoned under Thomas Jefferson in 1801, who deemed it too monarchical. Until Woodrow Wilson revived the old approach in 1913, it was submitted by the president as a letter, which was read aloud on his behalf by a clerk.

Since Wilson, Herbert Hoover is the only president not to have given a State of the Union address to Congress in person.

The speech was actually known as the President’s Annual Message to Congress until Franklin D Roosevelt renamed it in the Thirties to echo the wording of the Constitution.

The address was first broadcast on radio in 1922 under Warren Harding. Harry Truman’s was the first to be shown on television in 1947 (a full decade before the Queen’s first Christmas speech was broadcast in Britain) and Bill Clinton’s 1997 message was the first to be streamed online. Mr Clinton also holds the distinction for giving the longest-ever, speaking for 89 minutes in 2000.

When this year’s is given the go-ahead, President Trump’s will be screened live across all major broadcast and cable TV networks.

The last time a president submitted their State of the Union address via letter was Jimmy Carter in 1981, nearing the very end of his term in office. The last time the speech had to be postponed altogether was five years later under his successor, President Reagan, as a result of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, in which seven astronauts were killed when their craft broke apart over the Atlantic.

Significant State of the Union addresses include Roosevelt’s on 6 January 1941, when he outlined the “Four Freedoms” everyone should be entitled to (freedoms of speech and worship and freedoms from want and fear), Lyndon Johnson announcing his “War on Poverty” in 1964 and George W Bush naming North Korea, Iraq and Iran among his “axis of evil” in 2002.

Richard Nixon attempted to use his 1974 speech to downplay his troubles, saying: “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” He resigned the following August.

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Among the most downbeat was Gerald Ford’s a year later: “The state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work ... We depend on others for essential energy. Some people question their government’s ability to make hard decisions and stick with them. They expect Washington politics as usual.”

President Trump is unlikely to be so candid, despite the myriad problems his administration faces.

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