state of the union

Tonight, President Barack Obama gave his State of the Union address. If you follow politics I’m sure you’ll hear quite a lot about it tonight and over the coming days. What you will probably hear less of is the history of this fascinating tradition, which some would argue lies at the very heart of the American presidency.

For starters, the State of the Union (SOTU) is not optional–it’s mandatory. The U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 3, requires that the President inform Congress of “of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Thus, he (hopefully soon, she) doesn’t have a choice in the matter. As to how this duty is discharged, however, there is and has historically been a lot of flexibility.

Despite the ubiquity of modern SOTU speeches as televised political theater, there is no requirement that the President give the address in person. In fact, for the entire 19th century and well into the 20th, the SOTU was a written document delivered to Congress and usually read aloud by the clerk of the House of Representatives. In the beginning, though, it was an oral speech. George Washington addressed Congress personally 8 times between 1790 and 1796, and his successor John Adams did 4 times. It was Thomas Jefferson who decided he couldn’t be bothered to come all the way down to Congress in person, largely because he felt the tradition was too much like that of a king. Every President through Taft kept to this tradition, choosing to send Congress a memo rather than harangue them in person. Although Woodrow Wilson broke the tradition and spoke to Congress personally in 1913, not every SOTU since then has been oral. Coolidge and Hoover went back to written messages.

Franklin Roosevelt had the unenviable task of giving a SOTU address in early January 1942, less than one month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Here’s the first part of the speech.

1934 was a big year for the SOTU. Previously, the message was usually delivered in December at the start of the Congressional session. The 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, changed all that, and from then on the SOTU was placed in January. Franklin Roosevelt delivered his first SOTU on January 3, 1934. Probably his most famous SOTU was the one from 1941, where he laid out the “Four Freedoms” as an aspirational statement on the eve of U.S. entry into World War II.

Because of the change of the SOTU into January rather than December, this posed a dilemma. With Presidents now (after 1937) being inaugurated in January, who gives the SOTU for an inauguration year–the outgoing President, just before he leaves office, or the incoming one, after only days on the job? The way it has traditionally worked, the outgoing President gives a SOTU, and sometimes the incoming one addresses Congress too but it’s not considered an “official” SOTU. Thus, technically, the written message that outgoing President Jimmy Carter gave to Congress on January 16, 1981–the last SOTU to be delivered in writing–was the “real” SOTU for 1981, and when the new President Ronald Reagan spoke to Congress on February 18, 1981, it was not technically a SOTU.

Sometimes this can make things blurry. Technically, there was no “official” SOTU delivered in 2009. George W. Bush gave his last SOTU in January 2008, and Obama addressed Congress on February 24, 2009 but it was not an official SOTU. Does it matter? Not really.

Technically Ronald Reagan’s first SOTU was not the first speech he gave to Congress after taking office, but this one, in January 1982.

Death has thwarted the SOTU twice. William Henry Harrison, who was President for only a month between March and April 1841, never got a chance to make a SOTU. According to the timing then in place, he would have given it in December. Garfield is the only other President never to give a SOTU in any form. He was assassinated in 1881 (shot in July, died in September) and similarly never got the chance.

Today the most notable feature of the SOTU, as televised, is how freaking long it is. It seems to go on forever. Believe it or not there are statistics complied on the length of the addresses (here). Of the modern Presidents, since Lyndon B. Johnson, the most long-winded President, by a substantial margin, was Bill Clinton. His SOTU’s averaged 1 hour, 14 minutes. The recent President who most mastered the art of brevity was Richard Nixon, whose SOTU’s averaged just 35 minutes. Obama’s run long, about 1 hour 3 minutes, but tonight’s speech may skew the average if abnormally long or abnormally short.

That’s really all you need to know, isn’t it?