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What Is the State of the Union Address?

The U.S. Constitution requires the president to provide Congress with a periodic report on “the State of the Union.” But the report doesn’t have to be in a speech.

Each winter, Americans gather to watch the president deliver the State of the Union address. We’re accustomed to seeing the president stand before Congress and talk about the accomplishments of the current administration and the challenges the nation faces. But why does the president do it? And does the speech actually accomplish anything?

Why Does the President Give the State of the Union Address?

Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution 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.”

This clause doesn’t specifically require that the president provide a report to Congress every year. But, in 1790, George Washington set precedent by delivering what was officially known as the “Annual Message.” He continued to give the speech each year of his presidency, and it eventually came to be called the “State of the Union” address. Since that time, with very few exceptions, the president has delivered a similar message to Congress every year.

Was the State of the Union Address Always a Speech?

The Constitution doesn’t require that the “time to time” update from the President be in speech form. Although the nation’s first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, chose to deliver their messages orally, Thomas Jefferson stopped that practice. Jefferson feared that a formal address to Congress too closely resembled the British monarch’s speech to each new session of Parliament and chose to give his reports in writing.

Annual letters to the legislature remained the norm until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson appeared in person before Congress to deliver his message. Since that time, most presidents have chosen to deliver theirs through speeches to Congress.

When Is the State of the Union Address?

The Constitution also doesn’t require the President to report to Congress at any specific time. Presidents have traditionally chosen to deliver the address near the beginning of each Congressional term. That means that, today, State of the Union speeches usually occur in late January or February.

What Subjects Does the Address Cover?

The earliest annual messages to Congress covered such matters as budget requests, departmental reports, and general observations on the strength of the national economy. After President Wilson resumed the practice of delivering an oral message to Congress, the State of the Union address became more of a platform to gather support for the presidential agenda. Modern presidents, who still use the speech to discuss the federal budget and the economy, also typically take the opportunity to:

  • emphasize shared national values, like freedom and equality
  • assess important issues facing the country, like national security, jobs, and the cost of higher education, and
  • propose policy solutions for those issues.

Does the Speech Have Any Effect?

Because the State of the Union speech is now carried live on television, radio, and the Internet, presidents use the occasion to speak directly to the American public. They hope to use their speeches to convince voters—and those voters’ elected representatives—to support particular policy positions. But does it work?

Research shows that although the annual speeches attract audiences in the tens of millions, they don’t often result in significant change—either in passed legislation or public opinion. Between 1965 and 2015, Congress approved an average of only about 39% of all policy proposals presented in State of the Union addresses. And polls suggest that few Americans change their attitudes toward the president in the days following the speech.

Despite the lack of a measured political impact, many consider the address important. To the president’s administration, the speech is an opportunity to promote a presidential image and rally supporters. To the public, it’s a chance for the American public to learn about major matters facing the country and the administration’s priorities.

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