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Behind the #SOTU Headlines

State of the Union addresses are mandated in the Constitution, they haven’t always worked the same way as they do now.
President Obama delivering last year's State of the Union (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Obama delivering last year's State of the Union

State of the Union addresses can seem pretty cookie-cutter year after year. The President gives his speech on his aspirations for the upcoming year in front of Congress, and a representative from the opposition party responds. Though State of the Union addresses are mandated in the Constitution, they haven’t always worked the same way as they do now.

George Washington delivered the first State of the Union speech, known as the Annual Message, in front of Congress in 1790. However, when Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he started the tradition of submitting a written report to Congress because he was concerned that speaking in front of Congress would make him look too much like the King of England, who appeared in front of Parliament every year. For the next century, all of the State of the Union addresses were presented in written format and tended to get very wordy.

That changed when Woodrow Wilson became President. In April 1913, he spoke in front of Congress for the first time and told them that, “I am very glad indeed to have this opportunity to address the two Houses directly and to verify for myself the impression that the President of the United States is a person, not a mere department of the government hailing Congress from some isolated island of jealous power, sending messages, not speaking naturally and with his own voice – that he is a human  being trying to cooperate with other human beings in a common service.” His first official annual message was in December 1913 and was delivered in front of Congress, not via a written message. This gave future Presidents the option to deliver their speeches orally or in written format, or even in both formats, such as Nixon’s 1972 and 1974 addresses.

Calvin Coolidge was the first president to broadcast his annual message via radio in December 1923. There isn’t any audio from that speech, but there is audio from his 1925 address, plus some video from the event.

Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the yearly address from its usual November/December spot to January in 1934, where it’s been ever since. Most, but not all State of the Union addresses have since been delivered orally. Though FDR first referred to his speech as a State of the Union in 1935, it officially got its name in 1947 when Harry S. Truman delivered the first televised address.

1966 was the first year that the opposition party delivered an official response to the President’s speech when Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) and Rep. Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) responded to President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union. The day before the speech, Ford appeared on Meet the Press to justify the opposition response, arguing that, “We believe that the public needs and deserves the other side of the coin, that they should get both sides of the appraisal of the State of the Union.”

Though the opposition did not deliver responses every year, the number of people delivering the response differed from year to year. In 1968, 17 Republican members of Congress, including George H.W. Bush, who was a representative at the time, delivered a joint televised rebuttal.

The Democrats also took part in various joint televised responses and discussions, starting with responses to Nixon’s speeches, with a 45 minute program by 7 members of Congress in 1970 and a 53 minute program by 11 members of Congress in 1972.  They continued this tradition during Reagan’s presidency in 1982- 1986. These Democrats included Rep. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) in 1982, , Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) in 1983, and Gov. Bill Clinton (D-AR) in 1985.

In 2002, George W. Bush delivered the first webcasted State of the Union address, which was also his “axis of evil” speech.

Though many opposition parties have chosen to have 2 members deliver joint responses, only one person has delivered the response each year since 2006. Beginning in 2011, Tea Party Express, a national grassroots organization, began sponsoring its own response with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) delivering a message. 

This year, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) will deliver the official Republican response, while Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) will deliver the response hosted by Tea Party Express.