Each year, in late January or early February, the President of the United States gives a speech to both houses of the US Congress: The US Senate and the US House of Representatives. The speech is called the "State of the Union" address or speech, and it's steeped in tradition and importance.

Why Have This Speech?

The US Presidency is the highest political office in the country, and it's often called the most powerful position in the world. So, the President could call a press conference or simply contact the TV stations at anytime and be given the chance to talk to the nation. Why, then, does there have to be a special speech every year?

Because it's required by the US Constitution, which states that the President must "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."

Basically, the President must on occasion talk to Congress about how the nation is faring - that is, are things in good or bad shape? And what work still needs to be done.

The speech usually takes place in late January or early February. The Constitution's 20th Amendment makes Congress open for business in late January. Also under this Amendment, Presidential terms begin in late January (generally, January 20).

Traditionally, the speech is delivered on the last Tuesday of January, but there's no legal requirement for that date. And it's not set in stone. For instance, the speech was given on the last Monday of January in 2008, and the 2010 speech is on the last Wednesday of the month.

Lots to Talk About

Most of the time, the speeches aren't short, often lasting more than hour. There are usually plenty of things for the President to talk about. For example, State of the Union addresses, past and future, discuss matters like:

  • The condition of the US economy, such as job-loss and -creation, inflation, and the national debt or "deficit"
  • Social programs to help US citizens, as well as citizens of other nations in need
  • Education and health care
  • Progress, failures, and strategies in US military operations around the world

During the speech, the President almost always outlines new ideas in some or all of these matters and asks for Congress' help in passing new laws to get the programs up and running.

Because of the wide variety of topics covered, the speech is watched or listened to not only by millions of US citizens, but also by millions of people all over the world.

Although the speech is delivered in the Capitol building before the Congress, the speech is really for you and me - everyday, ordinary citizens. It's one of the hallmarks of the US form of open, democratic government. It's a chance for the President to tell us how he thinks things are going on the nation and any plans for making changes and improvements.

We, of course, have the option to agree or disagree with the President's assessment. We can decide if the President's done a good job in the past year, And though our elected Senators and Representatives, tell the President what we think about any new laws or programs proposed during the speech.

There's usually a lot of "armchair quarterbacking" and second guessing that goes along with the speech, and pundits will dissect each word carefully days after. It's not just about missing your favorite TV show, it's democracy in action.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Can anyone get into the Capital building for the State of the Union, or do I need an invitation?
  • Are television networks required by any law to carry the speech?
  • Are there any legal consequences if a President fails to give a State of the Union address?

Tagged as: Government, union address, government lawyer