The State of the Union Address (sometimes abbreviated to SOTU) is an annual message delivered by the president of the United States to a joint session of the United States Congress near the beginning of each calendar year on the current condition of the nation. The State of the Union Address generally includes reports on the nation's budget, economy, news, agenda, achievements and the president's priorities and legislative proposals.
The address fulfills the requirement in Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution for the president to periodically "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." During most of the country's first century, the president primarily submitted only a written report to Congress. After 1913, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, began the regular practice of delivering the address to Congress in person as a way to rally support for the president's agenda. With the advent of radio and television, the address is now broadcast live in all United States time zones on many networks.
Starting 1981, Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. president, began the practice of newly inaugurated presidents delivering an address to Congress in the first year of their term, but not designating that speech an official "State of the Union".
The practice arises from a duty of the president under the State of the Union Clause of the U.S. Constitution:
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.— Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution
Though the language of the clause is not specific, since the 1930s, the president has made this report annually in late January or early February. Between 1934 and 2022 the date has been as early as January 3, and as late as March 1.
While not required to deliver a speech, every president since Woodrow Wilson, with the notable exception of Herbert Hoover, has made at least one State of the Union report as a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress. Before then, most presidents delivered the State of the Union as a written report.
Since Franklin Roosevelt, the State of the Union is given typically each January before a joint session of the United States Congress and is held in the House of Representatives chamber of the United States Capitol. Newly inaugurated presidents generally deliver an address to Congress in February of the first year of their term, but this speech is not officially considered to be a "State of the Union".
What began as a communication between president and Congress has become in effect a communication between the president and the people of the United States. Since the advent of radio, and then television, the speech has been broadcast live in all United States time zones on most networks, preempting scheduled programming. Since at least the 1960s, in order to reach the largest audience, the speech has typically been given at 9 p.m. (Eastern Time, UTC-5).
George Washington delivered the first regular annual message before a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790, in New York City, then the provisional U.S. capital. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice of delivering the address in person, regarding it as too monarchical (similar to the Speech from the Throne). Instead, the address was written and then sent to Congress to be read by a clerk until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice despite some initial controversy, and an in-person address to Congress has been delivered nearly every year since. However, there have been exceptions to this rule, with some messages being given solely in writing, and others given both in writing and orally (either in a speech to Congress or through broadcast media). The last president to give a written message without a spoken address was Jimmy Carter in 1981, days before his term ended after his defeat by Ronald Reagan.
For many years, the speech was referred to as "the President's Annual Message to Congress". The actual term "State of the Union" first emerged in 1934 when Franklin D. Roosevelt used the phrase, becoming its generally accepted name since 1947.
Prior to 1934, the annual message was delivered at the end of the calendar year, in December. The ratification of the 20th Amendment on January 23, 1933, changed the opening of Congress from early March to early January, affecting the delivery of the annual message. Since 1934, the message or address has been delivered to Congress in January or February.
The Twentieth Amendment also established January 20 as the beginning of the presidential term. In years when a new president is inaugurated, the outgoing president may deliver a final State of the Union message, but none has done so since Jimmy Carter sent a written message in 1981. In 1953 and 1961, Congress received both a written State of the Union message from the outgoing president and a separate State of the Union speech by the incoming president. Since 1981, in recognition that the responsibility of reporting the State of the Union formally belongs to the president who held office during the past year, newly inaugurated presidents have not officially called their first speech before Congress a "State of the Union" message.
Warren Harding's 1922 speech was the first to be broadcast on radio, albeit to a limited audience, while Calvin Coolidge's 1923 speech was the first to be broadcast across the nation. President Roosevelt's address in 1936 was the first delivered in the evening, but this precedent was not followed again until the 1960s. Harry S. Truman's 1947 address was the first to be broadcast on television. In 1968, television networks in the United States for the first time imposed no time limit for their coverage of a State of the Union address. Delivered by Lyndon B. Johnson, this address was followed by extensive televised commentary by, among others, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Milton Friedman. Bill Clinton's 1997 address was the first broadcast available live on the World Wide Web.
Ronald Reagan's 1986 State of the Union Address was the first to have been postponed. He had planned to deliver the speech on January 28, 1986, but it was delayed for a week following the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that morning. Reagan instead addressed the nation from the Oval Office about the disaster.
In 1999, Bill Clinton became the first president to deliver an in-person State of the Union address while standing trial for impeachment; the speech occurred the same day that Clinton's defense team made its opening statement in Clinton's impeachment trial, though he did not mention the proceeding.
On January 23, 2019, the 2019 State of the Union speech by Donald Trump, originally planned for January 29 was canceled after an exchange of letters with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in which she stated she would not proceed with a vote on a resolution to permit him to deliver the speech in the House chamber until the end of 2018–19 United States federal government shutdown. This decision rescinded an earlier invitation from the speaker, reportedly the first time in American history that a Speaker had "disinvited" the president from delivering the address. They later agreed to hold the speech on February 5.
Because the address is made to a joint session of Congress, the House and Senate must each pass a resolution setting a date and time for the joint session. Then, a formal invitation is made by the speaker of the House to the president typically several weeks before the appointed date.
Every member of Congress can bring one guest to the State of the Union address. The president may invite up to 24 guests to be seated in a box with the First Lady. The speaker of the House may invite up to 24 guests in the speaker's box. Seating for Congress on the main floor is by a first-in, first-served basis with no reservations. The Cabinet, Supreme Court justices, members of the Diplomatic Corps, and military leaders (the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Commandant of the Coast Guard) have reserved seating.
By approximately 8:30 p.m. on the night of the address, the members of the House have gathered in their seats for the joint session. Then, the Deputy Sergeant at Arms addresses the speaker and loudly announces the vice president and members of the Senate, who enter and take the seats assigned for them.
The speaker, and then the vice president, specify the members of the House and Senate, respectively, who will escort the president into the House chamber. The Deputy Sergeant at Arms addresses the speaker again and loudly announces, in order, the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, the Chief Justice of the United States and the Associate Justices, and the Cabinet, each of whom enters and takes their seats when called. The justices take the seats nearest to the speaker's rostrum and adjacent to the sections reserved for the Cabinet and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Just after 9:00 pm, as the president reaches the door to the chamber, the House Sergeant at Arms stands just inside the doors, faces the speaker, and waits until the president is ready to enter the chamber. When the president is ready, the Sergeant at Arms announces the entrance, loudly stating the phrase: "Madam [or Mister] Speaker, the president of the United States!"
As applause and cheering begin, the president slowly walks toward the speaker's rostrum, followed by members of the congressional escort committee. The president's approach is slowed by pausing to shake hands, hug, kiss, and autograph copies of the speech for Members of Congress. After taking a place at the House Clerk's desk, the president hands two manila envelopes, previously placed on the desk and containing copies of the speech, to the speaker and vice president.
After continuing applause from the attendees has diminished, the speaker introduces the president to the representatives and senators, typically stating: "Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States." This leads to a further round of applause and, eventually, the beginning of the address by the president.
Customarily, one cabinet member (the designated survivor) does not attend the speech, in order to provide continuity in the line of succession if a catastrophe disables the president, the vice president, and other succeeding officers gathered in the House chamber. Additionally, since the September 11 attacks in 2001, a few members of Congress have been asked to relocate to undisclosed locations for the duration of the speech to form a rump Congress in the event of a disaster. Since 2003, each chamber of Congress has formally named a separate designated survivor.
Both the speaker and the vice president sit at the speaker's desk, behind the President for the duration of the speech. If either is unavailable, the next highest-ranking member of the respective house substitutes. Once the chamber settles down from the President's arrival, the speaker officially presents the President to the joint session of Congress. The president then delivers the speech from the podium at the front of the House Chamber.
For the 2011 address, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado proposed a break in the tradition of seating Republicans and Democrats on opposite sides of the House; this was in response to the 2011 Tucson Shooting in which Representative Gabby Giffords was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. Approximately 60 legislators signed on to Udall's proposal; a similar plan for the 2012 address garnered bipartisan seating commitments from more than 160 lawmakers. Efforts to intersperse the parties during the State of the Union have since waned, and by the 2016 address, seating had largely returned to the traditional partisan arrangement.
The contents of the speeches typically contain information and status updates of the country and federal government during the incumbent president's administration. It has become customary to use the phrase "The State of the Union is strong," sometimes with slight variations, since President Ronald Reagan introduced it in his 1983 address. It has been repeated by every president in nearly every year since, with the exception of George H. W. Bush. Gerald Ford's 1975 address had been the first to use the phrasing "The State of the Union is...", though Ford completed the sentence with "not good."
Since Reagan's 1982 address, it has also become common for presidents of both parties to honor special guests sitting in the gallery, such as American citizens or visiting heads of state. During that 1982 address, Reagan acknowledged Lenny Skutnik for his act of heroism following the crash of Air Florida Flight 90. Since then, the term "Lenny Skutniks" has been used to refer to individuals invited to sit in the gallery, and then cited by the president, during the State of the Union.
State of the Union speeches usually last a little over an hour, partly because of the large amounts of applause that occur from the audience throughout. The applause is often political in tone, with many portions of the speech being applauded only by members of the president's own party. As non-political officeholders, members of the Supreme Court or the Joint Chiefs of Staff rarely applaud in order to retain the appearance of political impartiality. In recent years, the presiding officers of the House and the Senate, the speaker and the vice president, respectively, have departed from the neutrality expected of presiding officers of deliberative bodies, as they, too, stand and applaud in response to the remarks of the president with which they agree.
Main article: Response to the State of the Union address
Since 1966, the speech has been followed on television by a response or rebuttal by a member of the major political party opposing the president's party. The response is typically broadcast from a studio with no audience. In 1970, the Democratic Party put together a TV program with their speech to reply to President Nixon, as well as a televised response to Nixon's written speech in 1973. The same was done by Democrats for President Reagan's speeches in 1982 and 1985. The response is not always produced in a studio; in 1997, the Republicans for the first time delivered the response in front of high school students. In 2010, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell gave the Republican response from the House of Delegates chamber of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, in front of about 250 attendees.
In 2004, the Democratic Party's response was delivered in Spanish for the first time, by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. In 2011, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann also gave a televised response for the Tea Party Express, a first for a political movement.
Although much of the pomp and ceremony behind the State of the Union address is governed by tradition rather than law, in modern times, the event is seen as one of the most important in the US political calendar. It is one of the few instances when all three branches of the US government are assembled under one roof: members of both houses of Congress constituting the legislature, the president's Cabinet constituting the executive, and the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court constituting the judiciary. In addition, the military is represented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while foreign governments are represented by the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. The address has also been used as an opportunity to honor the achievements of some ordinary Americans, who are typically invited by the president to sit with the First Lady.
Certain U.S. states have a similar annual address given by the governor. For most of them, it is called the State of the State address. In Iowa, it is called the Condition of the State Address; in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the speech is called the State of the Commonwealth address. The mayor of the District of Columbia gives a State of the District address. American Samoa has a State of the Territory address given by the governor. Puerto Rico has a State Address given by the governor. In Guam, the governor delivers an annual State of the Island Address.
Some cities or counties also have an annual State of the City Address given by the mayor, county commissioner or board chair, including Sonoma County, California; Orlando, Florida; Gwinnett County, Georgia; Cincinnati, Ohio; New Haven, Connecticut; Parma, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Seattle, Washington; Birmingham, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; Los Angeles, California; Buffalo, New York; Rochester, New York; San Antonio, Texas; McAllen, Texas; and San Diego, California. The Mayor of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County in Nashville, Tennessee gives a speech similar called the State of Metro Address. Some university presidents give a State of the University address at the beginning of every academic term. Some elementary and secondary schools and school districts also hold a "State of the School(s)" address at the beginning of each calendar year. Private companies usually have a "State of the Corporation" or "State of the Company" address given by the respective CEO. As well, the commissioners of some North American professional sports leagues, in particular Major League Soccer and the Canadian Football League, deliver annual "State of the League" addresses, usually in conjunction with events surrounding their respective leagues' championship games.
The State of the Union model has also been adopted by the European Union, and in France since the presidency of Emmanuel Macron.
Television ratings for recent State of the Union addresses were:
|2022-03-01||Joe Biden||38.20||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, Telemundo, Univision, PBS, CNN, CNNe, Fox Business Network, Fox News Channel and MSNBC|
|2020-02-04||Donald Trump||37.17||27.46||22.7||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, Telemundo, Univision, PBS, CNN, CNNe, Fox Business Network, Fox News Channel and MSNBC|
|2019-02-05||46.79||33.62||28.0||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, TELEMUNDO, UNIVISION, CNN, CNNe, FOX BUSINESS, FOXNC, MSNBC, PBS|
|2018-01-30||45.55||32.17||26.9||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, ESTRELLA, TELEMUNDO, UNIVISION, CNN, FOX BUSINESS, FOXNC, MSNBC, PBS|
|2016-01-12||Barack Obama||31.33||23.04||19.6||ABC, AL JAZEERA AMERICA, AZTECA, CBS, CNN, FOX, FOX BUSINESS, FOXNC, GALAVISION, MSNBC, NBC, NBC UNIVERSO, UNIVISION|
|2015-01-20||31.71||23.14||19.9||ABC, AL JAZEERA AMERICA, AZTECA, CBS, CNN, FOX, FOX BUSINESS, FOXNC, GALAVISION, MSNBC, MUNDOFOX, NBC, UNIVISION|
|2014-01-28||33.30||23.95||20.7||ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, AZTECA, FOX BUSINESS, FOXNC, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, AL JAZEERA AMERICA, GALAVISION, MUN2, UNIVISION|
|2013-02-12||33.50||24.77||21.8||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS, AZTECA, UNIVISION, MFX, CNBC, CNN, FOX BUSINESS, FOXNC, MSNBC, CURRENT, CENTRIC, GALAVISION|
|2012-01-24||37.75||27.57||24.0||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, TELEMUNDO, TF, UNIVISION, CNBC, CNN, FOX BUSINESS, FOXNC, GALAVISION, MSNBC, MUN2|
|2011-01-25||42.79||30.87||26.6||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, TELEMUNDO, UNIVISION, CNN, CENTRIC, CNBC, FOXNC, MSNBC|
|2010-01-27||48.01||34.18||29.8||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, TELEMUNDO, UNIVISION, CNN, BET, CNBC, FOXNC, MSNBC|
|2008-01-28||George W. Bush||37.52||27.70||24.7||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, FOXNC, MSNBC, TELEMUNDO, UNIVISION|
|2007-01-24||45.49||32.97||29.6||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, FOXNC, MSNBC, TELEMUNDO, UNIVISION|
|2006-01-31||43.18||30.53||31.2||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, FOXNC, MSNBC, TELEMUNDO, AZTECA AMERICA, TELFUTURA|
|2005-02-02||39.43||28.36||35.3||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, FOXNC, MSNBC, TELEMUNDO, TELEFUTURA|
|2004-01-20||43.41||30.29||28.0||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, CNBC, FOXNC, MSNBC|
|2003-01-28||62.06||41.48||38.8||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, CNBC, FOXNC, MSNBC|
|2002-01-29||51.77||35.55||33.6||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, CNBC, FOXNC, MSNBC|
|2000-01-27||Bill Clinton||31.48||22.54||22.4||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, FOXNC, MSNBC|
|1999-01-19||43.50||30.70||31.0||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, FOXNC, MSNBC|
|1998-01-27||53.08||36.51||37.2||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, FOXNC, MSNBC, CNBC|
|1997-02-04||41.10||27.60||28.4||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN|
|1996-01-23||40.90||28.40||29.6||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN|
|1995-01-24||42.20||28.10||29.5||ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN|
|1994-01-25||45.80||31.00||32.9||ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN|
On Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, President Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address. The address was carried live from 9:00 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. on 13 networks and tape-delayed on Univision.
Watts told his audience—about 100 high school students from the CloseUp Foundation watched in person, while a smaller number watched on television at home—that he is 'old enough to remember the Jim Crow' laws that affected him and his family while he grew up in a black neighborhood in small-town Oklahoma.
And then there was the Spanish-language response—the first ever—delivered by New Mexico governor, and former Clinton energy secretary, Bill Richardson.