The State of the Union is an annual message which the President of the United States gives to Congress, usually an address to a joint session of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate). It has occurred in January (except for six occasions in February) since 1934. Sometimes, especially in recent years, newly-inaugurated Presidents have delivered speeches to joint sessions of Congress only weeks into their respective terms, but these are not officially considered State of the Union addresses. The address is also most frequently used to outline the President's legislative proposals for the upcoming year. For these reasons, a State of the Union address is generally not given in years in which a new president is inaugurated.
Modeled after the monarch's Speech from the Throne during the State Opening of Parliament in the United Kingdom, such a report is required by the United States Constitution. Note that there is no requirement that the speech must take place annually, although it typically does:
He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." (Article II, Section 3)''
George Washington gave the first State of the Union address on January 8, 1790 in New York City, then the provisional U.S. capital. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice of delivering the address in person, regarding it as too monarchical (similar to the Speech from the Throne). Instead, the address was written and then sent to Congress to be read by a clerk until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice despite some initial controversy. However, there have been exceptions to this rule. Presidents during the latter half of the 20th century have sent written State of the Union addresses. The last President to do this was Jimmy Carter in 1981.
For many years, the speech was referred to as "the President's Annual Message to Congress." The actual term "State of the Union" did not become widely used until after 1935 when Franklin D. Roosevelt began using the phrase.
Prior to 1934, the annual message was delivered at the end of the calendar year, in December. The ratification of the 20th Amendment on January 23, 1933 changed the opening of Congress from early March to early January, affecting the delivery of the annual message. Since 1934, the message or address has been delivered to Congress in January or February. Today, the speech is typically delivered on the last Tuesday in January, although there is no such provision written in law, and it varies from year to year, and it occurred on the last Monday of January in 2008.
The Twentieth Amendment also established January 20 as the beginning of the presidential term. In years when a new president is inaugurated, the outgoing president may deliver a final State of the Union message, but none has done so since Jimmy Carter sent a written message in 1981. In 1953 and 1961, Congress received both a written State of the Union message from the outgoing president and a separate State of the Union speech by the incoming president. Since 1989, in recognition that the responsibility of reporting the State of the Union formally belongs to the president who held office during the past year, newly inaugurated Presidents have not officially called their first speech before Congress a "State of the Union" message.
Calvin Coolidge's 1923 speech was the first to be broadcast on radio. Harry S. Truman's 1947 address was the first to be broadcast on television. Lyndon B. Johnson's address in 1965 was the first delivered in the evening. Ronald Reagan was the only president to have postponed his State of the Union address. On January 28, 1986, he planned to give his address, but after learning of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, he postponed it for a week and addressed the nation on the day's events. Not a single justice of the Supreme Court was in attendance for this postponed address, the first ever such absence. Bill Clinton gave his 1999 address while his impeachment trial was underway, and his 1997 address was the first broadcast available live on the World Wide Web. The Supreme Court was entirely absent again for President Clinton's State of the Union address in January 2000, believed to be a boycott against the President following his impeachment.
Sitting near the front of the chamber are the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Justices of the Supreme Court, and the members of the President's Cabinet. Customarily, one cabinet member (the designated survivor) does not attend, in order to provide continuity in the line of succession in the event that a catastrophe disables the President, the Vice President, and other succeeding officers gathered in the House chamber. Additionally, since the September 11, 2001 attacks, a few members of Congress have been asked to relocate to undisclosed locations for the duration of the speech. For example, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), President pro tempore, watches the Address at his home on television.
Once the chamber settles down from the President's arrival and the attendees take their seats, the Speaker then taps the gavel and officially presents the President to the joint session of Congress by saying something similar to the following: "Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States." Another standing ovation commences before the President finally begins the address.
The President delivers the speech (with the aid of dual transparent teleprompters) from the podium at the front of the House Chamber. State of the Union speeches usually last a little over an hour. Part of the length of the speech is due to the large amounts of applause that occur from the audience throughout. The applause is somewhat political in tone, with many portions of the speech only being applauded by members of the President's own party. Applause typically indicates support, while applause with a standing ovation indicates enthusiastic support. An exception occurred in 2006 when a large number of Democrats, then the minority party, responded with a mocking standing ovation to the President's statement that "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security. Members of the Supreme Court rarely applaud or participate in standing ovations during the speech. It is believed that as the judicial branch they must remain impartial to any political positions, statements or objectives stated during the speech. The Joint Chiefs of Staff applaud statements regarding foreign policy to support the orders of the commander-in-chief, but they do not applaud or participate in standing ovations for statements of domestic policy, as it is believed the military should not interfere with domestic policy. However, all join in the ovations that occur before the speech begins, because by tradition it is the office being applauded and not the person holding it. Indeed, the President is never introduced by name).
In the State of the Union the President traditionally outlines the administration's accomplishments over the previous year, as well as the agenda for the coming year, in upbeat and optimistic terms. At some point during the speech, the President usually says "The State of our Union is strong" or a very similar phrase. Since the 1982 address, it has also become common for the President to acknowledge special guests sitting near the First Lady in the gallery, such as everyday Americans or visiting heads of state. The guests are usually relevant to some part of the President's speech, and are referred to by the speechwriters as Lenny Skutniks after the first such guest.