Who is the Designative Survivor During the State of the Union Address?

Why One Member of the President's Cabinet Skips the Annual Speech

President Barack Obama delivers his last State of the Union address is January, 2016.
President Barack Obama delivers his last State of the Union address is January, 2016. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was chosen to stay behind and be the "designated survivor" in the case of a terrorist attack. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Did you ever notice that one member of the president’s cabinet always skips the State of the Union address? There’s a very good reason for the ritual. An attack on the U.S. Capitol during the annual speech would have a devastating effect on the nation because every member of Congress, the Supreme Court and executive branch gathers together in the House of Representatives for the address.

Related Story: When Is the State of the Union Address?

So the president chooses one member of his cabinet to be the “designated survivor.” The designated survivor, also jokingly referred to as the “Doomsday Successor,” remains outside of the Capitol building in a secret and secure location and would assume the presidency in the event of a catastrophic and targeted attack on the State of the Union address.

The practice of designating one cabinet member to remain outside the Capitol during the State of the Union address dates back at least to the 1950s and continued through the height of the Cold War, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office.

The White House began making its selection public in the 1980s. The president now names the designated survivor before the speech and states that his absence is in “keeping with procedures for continuity of government purposes." The only requirement is that the designated survivor be a natural-born citizen over the age of 35 so he can assume the presidency under the Constitution’s guidelines.

What the Designated Survivor Does

The designated survivor carries the nuclear launch code and a 45-pound briefcase known as “the Football” during the State of the Union speech, according to various published reports. National Public Radio has reported that some designated survivors have stayed in Washington, D.C., and ordered pizza while the president delivered the State of the Union.

The designated survivor is chosen several weeks before the State of the Union address, which is delivered in January. In the time between the selection and the speech, the designated survivor is trained to succeed the president in the event of a catastrophic attack, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Is One Designated Survivor Enough?

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been calls to change the way the president appoints a designated survivor and how the line of succession works. The American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, for example, have said Congress needs to add to the list of those who could succeed the president in a catastrophe “people who live outside of the Washington, D.C. area, such as governors or former presidents.”

“With the exception of a few members, Congress has been resistant to making these changes, but with them the government would become less vulnerable to a targeted attack,” the American Enterprise Institute wrote.

A report issued by the Continuity of Government Commission stated: “Current procedures leave our nation especially vulnerable at presidential inaugurations and State of the Union Addresses.”

Obama’s Designated Survivors

President Barack Obama chose the following cabinet members to stay behind during his State of the Union addresses:

  • 2016: Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson
  • 2015: Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx
  • 2014: Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz
  • 2013: Energy Secretary Steven Chu
  • 2012: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
  • 2011: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
  • 2010: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan
  • 2009: Attorney General Eric Holder