The State of the Union Address

President Obama Works on His State of the Union Address. Alex Wong/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.” 

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.

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 slavery 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.