The U.S. Constitution gives the president important powers, from being commander in chief to faithfully executing all laws. But it also imposes requirements, and one of them is unique: The president must “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union.”
That is why many presidents since George Washington have stood before Congress once a year and given a speech. Apart from the inaugural address, the State of the Union is a president’s highest-visibility speech.
Yet the event rarely inspires great rhetoric. “The State of the Union is a really odd duck in the menagerie of presidential speeches,” said Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. No part of government wants to be overlooked, and each lobbies hard for a mention in the text.
This year, on January 12, President Obama will deliver his seventh State of the Union address.
With the exception of the Four Freedoms speech that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on January 6, 1941, as war raged in Europe, these speeches often become laundry lists of proposals. Sometimes a president unveils an important initiative, such as in 2003, when President George W. Bush proposed a plan to fight AIDS in Africa. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) became law and was later embraced by the Obama administration.
Aside from state funerals and inaugurations, the State of the Union is the only occasion when the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the U.S. government are in the same room (the House of Representatives’ chambers). The audience doesn’t always agree with the president, but the evening is a reminder of the importance of meeting, and, of course, listening.
Freelance writers Christopher Connell and Susan Milligan contributed to this article.