When President Barack Obama strode into the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives this evening to report to assembled lawmakers, diplomats and other distinguished guests on conditions in our country, he was following in the footsteps of other presidents who have used an occasion required by our Constitution in an effort to make history.
Since President George Washington addressed the first Congress in 1790, all chief executives since then have followed his lead, and what began as a message between one branch of government to another has become a widely anticipated communication between the president and the people of both America and the world. Over time radio and television coverage have increased the audience enormously. Now President Obama is turning to social media such as Facebook and Twitter to reach a broader listenership of younger, digitally connected Americans for what is expected to be his most important speech of the year.
Evan presidents facing a Congress dominated by members of the other political party, as President Obama does now, have used the occasion to announce and promote significant new policies. President James Monroe, for example, crafted his 1823 State of the Union address to lay out a warning to the nations of Europe against interfering in the affairs of the Americas, the Monroe Doctrine. Abraham Lincoln told the nation in 1862 that he wanted to end slavery. And in 1941, Franklin Roosevelt laid out the four fundamental liberties that people everywhere in the world should enjoy: freedom of speech and of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
On a certain level, however, the speech transcends politics and statecraft. The Constitution’s framers devised the address to promote transparency and accountability in government. Because the president has access to the most information on the complex workings of government, he is required to give a comprehensive assessment of the overall state of the nation and our relations with the world. It also speaks to the separation of powers in our government, in that while the president uses the address to propose new programs and initiatives, it is Congress that decides how to proceed. And ultimately, both branches are accountable to the speech’s larger audience, the American people.