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Understanding the Importance of the State of the Union Address    

  By: Katie Petrick
   Published : January 23, 2018

In just one week, President Donald Trump will stand before a joint session of Congress to deliver his first State of the Union Address. Unlike his usual routine, President Trump will be expected to provide more than 280 characters to explain to the members of Congress and all of the Americans watching the speech at home exactly what his administration has done in the past year and what it plans to do moving forward.

But from where exactly does this come? President Trump may have the technology now to reach Congress and the American people. But this tradition goes back to when it all began.

Written into the Constitution of the United States of America, the founders put the necessity of the president to provide information to Congress.

Article II, Section III, Clause I
He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient…

As you see, there is a lot of interpretation left to the President as to what this means. In present day, we expect the president to provide a public address every January in person to both houses of Congress. It is televised and live-streamed, and the media analyzes every detail of the speech afterward. But this was not always the case.

In fact, there was a bit of a full circle effect, meaning that we are now where we once began. President George Washington in 1790 provided the first State of the Union address, then called the Annual Message, to the assembled Congress in New York City. He didn’t have anywhere near the same technology as we do today, but he was in person.

When Thomas Jefferson was president (1801-1809) he provided written updates. For Jefferson was a rather shy man and did not enjoy speaking in front of large groups. But he was one of the most articulate presidents. Just read some of words, and you’ll know he packs a punch.

It was not until 1913, under President Wilson, when presenting the address in person became the platform as means to rally support for the president’s agenda. Ten years later President Calvin Coolidge gave the first radio broadcast message. Then President Harry Truman became the first to have a televised message in 1947. And when the internet services became capable in 2002, President George W. Bush became the first president to have a live webcast of his report.

Through the State of the Union address, presidents fulfill their constitutional obligations. In other words, they are just doing their job. The technological innovations have allowed and demanded the State of the Union to be much more than simply giving a report on what is happening in the United States.

What To Look For

Mr. Speaker: Before the speech begins, the president must first enter the chambers. It is the job of the Sergeant at Arms to announce the president with eight specific words: Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States. This is the most famous of his duties, but the Sergeant at Arms is also responsible for ensuring safety and security within the Capitol. Over the course of history, there have been 36 people to hold the honored post.

Who’s Who: There are plenty of things to note when you are watching the State of the Union this year. Outside of possibly inauguration, the State of the Union is when the most branch leaders will come together. The speech will be given in the chamber of the House of Representatives and will include members of the House and Senate, the justices of the Supreme Court, the president’s Cabinet secretaries, and various VIP guests. Sitting behind the president, while he gives his speech, will be the vice president and the Speaker of the House.

Designated Survivor: But notably, there will be one Cabinet secretary absent. Records show that dating back to at least 1984, there has been one “designated survivor,” tasked with being anywhere but in the chambers during the speech. This is to ensure that if, in the event of disaster striking the Capitol, a member of the executive branch survives to run the country. It is not known that the tradition was born out of the Cold War era, but the task is compulsory since 9/11.

Stand Up or Not: Also noteworthy for those watching the speech will be the responses to the substance of the president’s address. News networks employ jobs solely to count the number of times various Congressional members applaud, for how long they applaud, and how many times they stand to applaud. President Bill Clinton has the record with 128 applause interruptions. But there will be no applause on policy suggestions coming from the justices of the Supreme Court. This is because the justices are to remain non-partisan. They make concerted effort to show neutrality on issues which may appear before the court.

Opposition Speeches: Once the speech concludes and everyone files out of the chambers, there will be an opposition speech provided. Began in 1966, the television networks offered 30 minutes to the president’s opposition party. Since that time, parties have selected prominent party representatives, senators, and governors to serve in the coveted role. Some who have spoken have become president, including Gerald Ford, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.

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