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SOTU Debriefed: The President's Annual Address to Congress

January 20, 2015
Tonight, President Obama will continue the age-old tradition of giving an official report to Congress in the form of the State of the Union Address. While the SOTU of today is a modern, media-frenzied opportunity for the President to lay out a vision of his legislative priorities for the year ahead, the address has seen significant variation and evolution since its Constitutional inception.

The foundation for the State of the Union is mandated in the Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, which states that 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.” Thomas Jefferson decided to submit a written report to Congress rather than give a formal speech, a tradition that would last from 1801 until Woodrow Wilson resurrected the in-person address in 1913. While some have speculated that Jefferson’s move was motivated by a fear that is seemed too monarchical to give a speech from the “throne” at the start of a new Congress, others have simply chalked it up to his supposed stage fright.

Entrance to the State of the Union is at a premium – it’s one of the only times when the President, Vice President, Members of Congress, the Justices of the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the cabinet are all in the same room. While one member of the cabinet abstains from attending as the “designated survivor” in the case of a disaster, it’s a crowded room full of all the federal government’s biggest hitters.

President Reagan was the first to invite special guests to the speech – colloquially referred to as “skutniks” in honor of Lenny Skutnik, Reagan’s first invitee and a CBO employee who rescued a passenger in the Potomac after a plane crash in 1982. Today, the practice has been extended to include American heroes and those whose experiences could help illustrate a point the President is trying to make. This year, 22 guests have been invited by President Obama to attend.

President Carter had the longest address at 33,667 words (not delivered publically, just written and submitted to Congress) in 1981 and President Washington’s 1790 speech was the shortest at 1,089 words. Most SOTU speeches in the late 20th century have rounded out at roughly 5,000 words. FDR had the most SOTU appearances, as ten of his twelve speeches were given directly before Congress. Neither Harrison nor Garfield ever gave an address, as they both died before having the opportunity.

While the issues and the man at the podium have changed from year to year, some things about the State of the Union remain the same. To see the similarity among SOTU addresses over the last 60 years, take a look at this video from The Washington Post.