The State of the Union speech has become a communication between the president and both the people of the United States and the world.
President Barack Obama will stride 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 and his legislative agenda for moving the nation forward. In so doing, he will be following in the footsteps of other presidents who have used an occasion required by our Constitution in an effort to make history.
George Washington delivered the first annual executive message to Congress on January 8, 1790. Article II of the U.S. Constitution lays out the powers and responsibilities of the chief executive, and it stipulates that the president shall “from time to time give to Congress information on the State of the Union and recommend for their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Most of Washington’s successors delivered their reports in writing to be read aloud by a congressional clerk. But with war clouds in Europe threatening world peace in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson traveled to the Capitol to deliver his thoughts and concerns personally.
All presidents 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 both the people of the United States and the world. President James Monroe used 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 freedoms that people everywhere in the world should enjoy.
At its heart, however, the speech transcends politics and statecraft. The Constitution’s framers devised the speech to promote transparency and accountability in government. Because the president has access to the most information on the complex workings of the 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 speech 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.