The State of the Union Address

President Trump delivers 2018 State of the Union Address
2018 State of the Union Address.

Donaldson Collection / Getty Images


The State of the Union address is a speech delivered annually by the President the United States to a joint session of the United States Congress. The State of the Union Address is not, however, delivered during the first year of a new president’s first term in office. In the address, the president typically reports on the general condition of the nation in the areas of domestic and foreign policy issues and outlines his or her legislative platform and national priorities.

Delivery of the State of the Union address fulfills Article II, Sec. 3, of the U.S. Constitution requiring that “The President 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.” 

As a policy of the doctrine of separation of powers, the Speaker of the House must invite the president to present the State of the Union Address in person. In lieu of an invitation, the address can be delivered to Congress in written form.

Since January 8, 1790, when George Washington personally delivered the first annual message to Congress, presidents have "from time to time," been doing just that in what has become known as the State of the Union Address.

The speech was shared with the public only through newspapers until 1923 when President Calvin Coolidge's annual message was broadcast on radio. Franklin D. Roosevelt first used the phrase "State of the Union" in 1935, and in 1947, Roosevelt's successor Harry S. Truman became the first president to deliver a televised address.

Extreme Security Required

As the largest annual political event in Washington, D.C., the State of the Union Address requires extraordinary security measures, as the president, vice president, Cabinet members, Congress, Supreme Court, military leaders and diplomatic corps are all together at the same time.

Declared a “National Special Security Event,” thousands of federal security personnel—including a number of military troops—are brought in to guard the area.

The Great State of the Union Controversy of 2019 

The question of when, where, and how the 2019 State of the Union Address would be delivered became a hot political mess on January 16, when during the longest federal government shutdown in history, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) asked President Trump to either delay his 2019 address or deliver it to Congress in writing. In doing so, Speaker Pelosi cited security concerns caused by the shutdown.

“Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29,” wrote Pelosi in a letter to the White House.

However, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stated that the Secret Service—then working without pay due to the shutdown—was fully prepared and willing to provide security during the address. “The Department of Homeland Security and the US Secret Service are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union,” she wrote in a tweet.

The White House suggested that Pelosi’s action was actually a form of political retaliation for President Trump’s reluctance to negotiate with the House on the its refusal to authorize $5.7 billion in funding requested by Trump for construction of the controversial Mexican border wall—the dispute that had triggered the government shutdown. 

On January 17, President Trump responded telling Pelosi via a letter that her congressional delegation’s planned secret seven-day, secret “excursion” to Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan “has been postponed” until the shutdown ended, unless she chose to travel using commercial aviation. Since the non-publicized trip included Afghanistan—an active war zone—travel had been arranged aboard a U.S. Air Force plane. Trump had earlier canceled his own upcoming trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, due to the shutdown.

On January 23, President Trump turned down Speaker Pelosi’s request to delay his State of the Union Address. In a letter to Pelosi, Trump asserted his intention to deliver the address on Tuesday, January 29 in the House chamber as originally scheduled.

“I will be honoring your invitation, and fulfilling my Constitutional duty, to deliver important information to the people and Congress of the United States of America regarding the State of our Union,” Trump wrote. “I look forward to seeing you on the evening on January 29th in the Chamber of the House of Representatives,” he continued, adding, “It would be so very sad for our Country if the State of the Union were not delivered on time, on schedule, and very importantly, on location!”

Speaker Pelosi has the option of blocking Trump by refusing to call a vote on the resolution required to formally invite the president to before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber. Lawmakers have not yet considered such a resolution, an action typically taken for granted. 

Speaker Pelosi quickly returned this historic struggle of separation of powers back to where it started on January 16 by informing President Trump that she would not allow him to deliver his speech in the House chamber as long as the government shutdown continued.

President Trump responded by indicating that he would announce plans for an alternative State of the Union address at a later date. A White House spokesperson suggested options including a speech from the Oval Office of the White House or at a Trump rally away from Washington.

In a late night tweet on January 23, President Trump conceded to Speaker Pelosi, stating that he would delay his State of the Union Address until after the government shutdown had ended.

“As the Shutdown was going on, Nancy Pelosi asked me to give the State of the Union Address. I agreed. She then changed her mind because of the Shutdown, suggesting a later date. This is her prerogative—I will do the Address when the Shutdown is over,” Trump tweeted, adding, “I look forward to giving a 'great' State of the Union Address in the near future!”

The President continued that he would not seek an alternative location for the annual speech “because there is no venue that can compete with the history, tradition and importance of the House Chamber.”

In a tweet of her own, Speaker Pelosi said she was hopeful that President Trump’s concession meant that he would back a bill already before the House that would temporarily fund the federal agencies affected by the shutdown.

On Friday January 25, President Trump reached an agreement with Democrats on a short-term spending bill that did not include any funding for the border wall but allowed the government to temporarily reopen until February 15. During the delay, negotiations over border wall funding were to continue, with President Trump stressing that unless funding for the wall was included in the final budget bill, he would either allow the government shutdown to resume or declare a national emergency allowing him to reallocate existing fund for the purpose.

On Monday, January 28, with the shutdown at least temporarily ended, Speaker Pelosi invited President Trump to give his State of the Union address on February 5 in the House Chamber.

“When I wrote to you on January 23rd, I stated that we should work together to find a mutually agreeable date when government has reopened to schedule this year's State of the Union address,” Pelosi stated in a letter provided by her office. “Therefore, I invite you to deliver your State of the Union address before a Joint Session of Congress on February 5, 2019 in the House Chamber.”

President Trump accepted Pelosi’s invitation a few hours later.

The Address At Last

President Trump finally delivered his second State of the Union address on February 5th in the House Chamber. In his 90-minute speech, the president sounded a tone of bipartisan unity, calling on Congress to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.” Without mentioning the record 35-day government shutdown that had delayed the address, he told lawmakers he was “ready to work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans” and by working to “govern not as two parties but as one nation.”

In addressing funding for his controversial border security wall that had caused the shutdown, the president came short of declaring a national emergency, but did insist he would “get it built.”

Trump also stressed his administration’s economic success, noting that “no one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the new jobs created in the last year.” The president added, "All Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before — and exactly one century after Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in Congress than ever before.” The statement brought a standing ovation and chants of “USA!” from female lawmakers, many of whom had been elected based on their platforms opposing the Trump administration.

On foreign policy, Trump touted his efforts to denuclearize North Korea, claiming that “if I had not been elected president of the United States we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.” He also revealed that he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a second summit on February 27 and 28 in Vietnam. 

Washington Hit the Essentials

Rather than outlining his administration's agenda for the nation, as has become the modern practice, Washington used that first State of the Union Address to focus on the very concept of the "union of states" that had so recently been created. Indeed, establishing and maintaining the union was the primary goal of Washington's first administration.

While the Constitution specifies no time, date, place, or frequency of the address, president's have typically delivered the State of the Union Address in late January, soon after Congress has re-convened. Since Washington's first address to Congress, the date, frequency, method of delivery and content have varied greatly from president to president.

Jefferson Puts it in Writing

Finding the whole process of a speech to a joint session of Congress a little too "kingly," Thomas Jefferson chose to carry out his constitutional duty in 1801 by sending details of his national priorities in separate, written notes to the House and Senate. Finding the written report a great idea, Jefferson's successors in the White House followed suit and it would be 112 years before a president again spoke the State of the Union Address.

Wilson Set the Modern Tradition

In a controversial move at the time, President Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of spoken delivery of the State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress in 1913.

Content of the State of the Union Address

In modern times, the State of the Union Address serves as both a conversation between the president and Congress and, thanks to television, an opportunity for the president to promote his party's political agenda for the future. From time to time, the address has actually contained historically important information.

  • In 1823, James Monroe explained what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, calling on powerful European nations to end their practice of western colonization.
  • Abraham Lincoln told the nation he wanted to end the practice of enslavement in 1862.
  • In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of the "four freedoms."
  • Just four months after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush shared his plans for a war on terror in 2002.

Whatever its content, presidents traditionally hope their State of the Union Addresses will heal past political wounds, promote bipartisan unity in Congress and win support for his legislative agenda from both parties and the American people. From time to time... that actually happens.

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Longley, Robert. "The State of the Union Address." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). The State of the Union Address. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The State of the Union Address." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).