President Obama reports to Congress and the nation Tuesday on the State of the Union, an annual rite in official Washington that for one night squeezes the three branches of government underneath the same roof for the speech. Some questions and answers.
Q: Why is the president giving the speech?
A: The Constitution requires the president to “from time to time give the Congress information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Q: Which president delivered the first address?
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A: George Washington delivered the first regular “annual message” before a joint session of Congress, in New York, on Jan. 8, 1790.
Q: Does the State of the Union have to be a speech?
A: No. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, changed the custom with his first message on Dec. 8, 1801, by sending written copies to both houses of Congress to be read by clerks in the House and Senate. He wanted to simplify what he believed to be an aristocratic imitation of the British monarch’s speech from the throne, which he thought was unsuitable to a republic. The practice of sending Congress written copies of the speech continued for more than a century.
Q: Who resumed delivering the annual message in person?
A: Woodrow Wilson, on April 8, 1913. Wilson also is widely credited with transforming the speech from a report on the activities of the executive branch into a blueprint for the president’s legislative program for the coming congressional session.
Q: When did the message become known as the “State of the Union”?
A: Franklin Roosevelt applied “State of the Union” to the message and the event. It became the popular terminology from then on.
Q: Is there a State of the Union speech every year?
A: No. Each of the past five presidents — Ronald Reagan in 1981, George H.W. Bush in 1989, Bill Clinton in 1993, George W. Bush in 2001 and Obama in 2009 — chose not to give an official State of the Union speech the year they were first inaugurated.
Q: Have any presidents not delivered any type of State of the Union message?
A: Two. William Henry Harrison, who died 32 days after his inauguration in 1841, and James Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881 after 199 days in office.
Q: Who are the people sitting with the first lady?
A: The White House invites them because they have done something that helps illustrate themes in the president’s speech. Reagan established the tradition of inviting special guests in 1982, and every president since has continued it.
Source: Congressional Research Service