The practice arises from a duty given to the president in the Constitution of the United States:
He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
Although the language of this Section of the Constitution is not specific, by tradition, the President makes this report annually in late January or early February. Between 1934 and 2013 the date has been as early as January 3, and as late as February 12.
While not required to deliver a speech, every president since Woodrow Wilson, with the notable exception of Herbert Hoover, has made at least one State of the Union report as a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress. Before that time, most presidents delivered the State of the Union as a written report.
Since Franklin Roosevelt, the State of the Union is given typically each January before a joint session of the United States Congress and is held in the House of Representatives chamber of the United States Capitol. When a presidential inauguration occurs in January, the date may be delayed until February.
What began as a communication between president and Congress has become a communication between the president and the people of the United States. Since the advent of radio, and then television, the speech has been broadcast live on most networks, preempting scheduled programming. To reach the largest audience, the speech, once given during the day, is now typically given in the evening, after 9pm ET (UTC-5).
Also, in recent decades, newly inaugurated presidents have chosen to deliver speeches to joint sessions of Congress in the early months of their presidencies, but have not officially considered them State of the Union addresses.
George Washington delivered the first regular annual message before a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790, in New York City, then the provisional U.S. capital. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice of delivering the address in person, regarding it as too monarchical (similar to the Speech from the Throne). Instead, the address was written and then sent to Congress to be read by a clerk until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice despite some initial controversy. However, there have been exceptions to this rule. Presidents during the latter half of the 20th century have sent written State of the Union addresses. The last President to do this was Jimmy Carter in 1981.
For many years, the speech was referred to as "the President's Annual Message to Congress". The actual term "State of the Union" first emerged in 1934 when Franklin D. Roosevelt used the phrase, becoming its generally accepted name since 1947.
Prior to 1934, the annual message was delivered at the end of the calendar year, in December. The ratification of the 20th Amendment on January 23, 1933 changed the opening of Congress from early March to early January, affecting the delivery of the annual message. Since 1934, the message or address has been delivered to Congress in January or February.
The Twentieth Amendment also established January 20 as the beginning of the presidential term. In years when a new president is inaugurated, the outgoing president may deliver a final State of the Union message, but none has done so since Jimmy Carter sent a written message in 1981. In 1953 and 1961, Congress received both a written State of the Union message from the outgoing president and a separate State of the Union speech by the incoming president. Since 1989, in recognition that the responsibility of reporting the State of the Union formally belongs to the president who held office during the past year, newly inaugurated Presidents have not officially called their first speech before Congress a "State of the Union" message.
In 1936, President Roosevelt set a precedent when he delivered the address at night. Only once before—when Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to order the U.S. into World War I—had a sitting president addressed Congress at night.
Calvin Coolidge's 1923 speech was the first to be broadcast on radio. Harry S. Truman's 1947 address was the first to be broadcast on television. Lyndon B. Johnson's address in 1965 was the first delivered in the evening. Three years later, in 1968, television networks in the United States, for the first time, imposed no time limit for their coverage of a State of the Union address. Delivered by Lyndon B. Johnson, this address was followed by extensive televised commentary by, among others, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Milton Friedman. Ronald Reagan's 1986 State of the Union Address is the only one to have been postponed. He had planned to deliver it on January 28, 1986 but postponed it for a week after learning of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and instead addressed the nation on the day's events. Bill Clinton's 1997 address was the first broadcast available live on the World Wide Web. President George W. Bush was the first president to address the speaker as "Madam Speaker".
A formal invitation is made by the Speaker of the House to the President several weeks before each State of the Union Address.
Every member of Congress can bring one guest to the State of the Union address. The President may invite up to 24 guests with the First Lady in her box. The Speaker of the House may invite up to 24 guests in the Speakers box. Seating for Congress on the main floor is by a first-in, first-served basis with no reservations. The Cabinet, Supreme Court justices, members of the Diplomatic Corps, and Joint Chiefs have reserved seating.
By approximately 8:30 pm on the night of the address, the members of the House have gathered in their seats for the joint session. Then, the Deputy Sergeant at Arms addresses the Speaker and loudly announces the Vice President and members of the Senate, who enter and take the seats assigned for them.
The Speaker, and then the Vice President, specify the members of the House and Senate, respectively, who will escort the President into the House chamber. The Deputy Sergeant at Arms addresses the Speaker again and loudly announces, in order, the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, the Chief Justice of the United States and the Associate Justices, and the Cabinet, each of whom enters and takes their seats when called. The justices take the seats nearest to the Speaker's rostrum and adjacent to the sections reserved for the Cabinet and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Just after 9 pm, as the President reaches the door to the chamber, the House Sergeant at Arms stands just inside the doors, faces the Speaker, and waits until the President is ready to enter the chamber. When the President is ready, the Sergeant at Arms always announces his entrance, loudly stating the phrase: "Mister Speaker (if the speaker is male)/Madam Speaker (if the speaker is female), the President of the United States!"
As applause and cheering begins, the President slowly walks toward the Speaker's rostrum, followed by members of his Congressional escort committee. The President's approach is slowed by pausing to shake hands, hug, kiss, and autograph copies of his speech for Members of Congress. After he takes his place at the House Clerk's desk, he hands two manila envelopes, previously placed on the desk and containing copies of the speech, to the Speaker and Vice President.
After continuing applause from the attendees has diminished, the Speaker introduces the President to the Representatives and Senators, stating: "Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States." This leads to a further round of applause and, eventually, the beginning of the address by the President.
At close of the ceremony, attendees leave on their own accord. The Sergeants at Arms guides the President out of the Chamber. Some politicians stay to shake, congratulate the President on his way out.
Customarily, one cabinet member (the designated survivor) does not attend, in order to provide continuity in the line of succession in the event that a catastrophe disables the President, the Vice President, and other succeeding officers gathered in the House chamber. Additionally, since the September 11 attacks in 2001, a few members of Congress have been asked to relocate to undisclosed locations for the duration of the speech to form a rump Congress in the event of a disaster.
Both the Speaker and the Vice President sit at the Speaker's desk, behind the President for the duration of the speech. If either is unavailable, the next highest-ranking member of the respective house substitutes. Once the chamber settles down from the President's arrival, the Speaker officially presents the President to the joint session of Congress. The President then delivers the speech from the podium at the front of the House Chamber.
In the State of the Union the President traditionally outlines the administration's accomplishments over the previous year, as well as the agenda for the coming year, often in upbeat and optimistic terms. Since the 1982 address, it has also become common for the President to honor special guests sitting in the gallery, such as everyday Americans or visiting heads of state. During that 1982 address, President Ronald Reagan acknowledged Lenny Skutnik for his act of heroism following the crash of Air Florida Flight 90. Since then, the term "Lenny Skutniks" has been used to refer to individuals invited to sit in the gallery, and then cited by the President, during the State of the Union.
State of the Union speeches usually last a little over an hour, partly because of the large amounts of applause that occur from the audience throughout. The applause is often political in tone, with many portions of the speech being applauded only by members of the President's own party. As non-political officeholders, members of the Supreme Court or the Joint Chiefs of Staff rarely applaud in order to retain the appearance of political impartiality. In recent years, the presiding officers of the House and the Senate, the Speaker and the Vice President, respectively, have departed from the neutrality expected of presiding officers of deliberative bodies, as they, too, stand and applaud in response to the remarks of the President with which they agree.
For the 2011 address, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado proposed a break in tradition wherein all members of Congress sit together regardless of party, as well as the avoiding of standing; this was in response to the 2011 Tucson Shooting in which Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. This practice was also repeated during the 2012 address and every address after.
Since 1966, the speech has been followed on television by a response or rebuttal by a member of the major political party opposing the President's party. The response is typically broadcast from a studio with no audience. In 1970, the Democratic Party put together a TV program with their speech to reply to President Nixon, as well as a televised response to Nixon's written speech in 1973. The same thing was done by Democrats for President Reagan's speeches in 1982 and 1985. The response is not always produced in a studio; in 1997, the Republicans for the first time delivered the response in front of high school students. In 2004, the Democratic Party's response was also delivered in Spanish for the first time, by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. In 2011, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann also gave a televised response for the Tea Party Express, a first for a political movement.
Although much of the pomp and ceremony behind the State of the Union address is governed by tradition rather than law, in modern times, the event is seen as one of the most important in the US political calendar. It is one of the few instances when all three branches of the US government are assembled under one roof: members of both houses of Congress constituting the legislature, the President's Cabinet constituting the executive, and the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court constituting the judiciary. In addition, the military is represented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while foreign governments are represented by the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. The address has also been used as an opportunity to honor the achievements of some ordinary Americans, who are typically invited by the President to sit with the First Lady.
Certain states have a similar annual address given by the governor. For most of them, it is called the State of the State address. In Iowa, it is called the Condition of the State Address; in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the speech is called the State of the Commonwealth address. The mayor of Washington, D.C. gives a State of the District address. American Samoa has a State of the Territory address given by the governor. Puerto Rico has a State Address given by the governor.
Some cities or counties also have an annual State of the City Address given by the mayor, county commissioner or board chair, including Sonoma County, California; Orlando, Florida; Cincinnati, Ohio; New Haven, Connecticut; Parma, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Seattle, Washington; Birmingham, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; Los Angeles, California; Buffalo, New York; Rochester, New York; San Antonio, Texas; McAllen, Texas; and San Diego, California. The Mayor of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County in Nashville, Tennessee gives a speech similar called the State of Metro Address. Some university presidents give a State of the University address at the beginning of every academic term. Private companies usually have a "State of the Corporation" or "State of the Company" address given by the respective CEO.
The State of the Union model has also been adopted by the European Union.President James Monroe first stated the Monroe Doctrine during his seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress on December 2, 1823. It became a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States and one of its longest-standing tenets, and would be invoked by many U.S. statesmen and several U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.
The Four Freedoms were goals first articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 6, 1941. In an address known as the Four Freedoms speech, he proposed four fundamental freedoms that people "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
During his State of the Union Address on January 11, 1944, FDR proposed the Second Bill of Rights. Roosevelt's argument was that the "political rights" guaranteed by the constitution and the Bill of Rights had "proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness".
During his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson introduced legislation that would come to be known as the "War on Poverty". This legislation was proposed by Johnson in response to a national poverty rate of around nineteen percent. The speech led the United States Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty.
During his State of the Union address on January 15, 1975, Gerald R. Ford very bluntly stated that "the state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work... We depend on others for essential energy. Some people question their Government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual." and how he didn't "expect much, if any, applause. The American people want action, and it will take both the Congress and the President to give them what they want. Progress and solutions can be achieved, and they will be achieved."
In his 2002 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush identified North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as representing significant threats to the United States. He said, "States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world". In this speech, he would outline the objectives for the War on Terror.
Television ratings for recent State of the Union Addresses were:
The 1993, 2001, 2009 and 2017 addresses were not, officially, State of the Union addresses.