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5 Facts about the State of the Union Address

Feb 7, 2020

On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump gave his third State of the Union address, and the 97th such in-person address in American history.

Here are five facts you should know about this constitutionally-mandated presidential message:

1. The U.S. Constitution (Article II, Section 3, clause 1) requires that the President “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.” The State of the Union (SOTU) address is currently the means the President reports to Congress—and to the American people—the current condition of the United States, and provides policy proposals for the upcoming legislative year. A concurrent resolution, agreed to by both chambers of Congress, sets aside a certain date and time for a joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate “for the purpose of receiving such communication as the President of the United States shall be pleased to make to them.” (The five most recent presidents—Reagan, Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama—also addressed a joint session of Congress shortly after their inaugurations, but these messages are technically not considered to be "State of the Union" addresses.)

2. The address to Congress has changed names over the years. From 1790 to 1946, it was formally known as the Annual Message. From 1942 to 1946, it was informally called the "state of the Union" message/address. Since 1947. it has officially been known as the State of the Union Address. During the 19th century, the annual message was comprised of both a lengthy administrative report on the various departments of the executive branch and a budget and economic message. When Congress began requiring a more-specialized report on the budget in 1921 and on the economy in 1946, those issues were dropped from the Annual Message.

3. Our first two presidents—George Washington and John Adams—delivered their messages to Congress in person. But Thomas Jefferson considered the practice to be “monarchical” and time consuming, and so sent his address in writing. This precedent was followed until Woodrow Wilson personally appeared before Congress in 1913. Thereafter the Address also became a platform for the president to promote his agenda before the legislative branch. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge became the first to broadcast his message by radio, and in 1947, Harry Truman gave the first televised broadcast. Lyndon Johnson gave the first televised broadcast in the evening in 1965, a precedent followed by almost all subsequent presidents (the exception being Jimmy Carter, who in 1981 delivered only a written message to Congress).

4. The shortest address—a mere 833  words—was delivered by George Washington. The longest written address (33,667 words) was by Jimmy Carter in 1981, while the longest spoken address (9,190 words) was by Bill Clinton in 1995. (In some years there were both written messages and oral addresses. Carter spoke and wrote in 1978, 1979, and 1980.) During the 19th century the average length was about 10,000 words, but that was reduced to an average of 5,000 words by late 20th century (the difference is likely due to the removal of the budget and economic message from the SOTU).

5. Over the last hundred years, presidents have described the “State of the Union” in various ways—Good (Truman), Sound (Carter), Not Good (Ford). But it was Ronald Reagan who started the “strong” trend in 1983 by referring to the SOTU as “Strong, but the economy is troubled.” Since 1983, “strong” has been used to refer to the SOTU in 30 addresses. The issue of abortion has also been included in the SOTU address by three Republican presidents—Reagan in 1988, George W. Bush in 2014, and Donald Trump in 2019 and 2020.