What is the State of the Union speech and why is it so important?
Every president gives an annual address to Congress to update members on the biggest issues facing the country and their plan to fix them.
On Wednesday President Joe Biden will give the State of the Union speech at a crucial point in the cycle of American politics. The Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterms, breaking up the unified control of Congress that Biden enjoyed during the first two years of his presidency.
In the coming months the President is expected to announce his candidacy for the presidential election in 2024 and such a prominent speech will help his team to define the context for the campaign.
The Democrats’ control of Congress allowed him to pass extensive legislation since taking office, including the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan relief package and bipartisan successes on infrastructure spending and gun control.
However a significant proportion of the speech is likely to be dedicated to the tensions with China after a suspected spy balloon was identified flying over mainland United States. Biden eventually ordered the craft be shot down, but Republican lawmakers have criticised the White House for failing to act sooner.
What is the State of the Union address?
The State of the Union speech is a tradition set forth in the Constitution, which states 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.”
Typically this is an annual event with the president outlining plans and intentions for the upcoming year. Such speeches tend to fulfil different roles at different points of an administration.
The first speech of each presidency is a particularly notable event with the new president generally offering a more long-term perspective than is otherwise expected. In 2021, for example, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Biden to the chamber to “share your vision for addressing the challenges and opportunities of this historic moment.”
The address is given once a year, typically in January or February, and sees the President set out what they believe are the most important issues and offer a plan to solve them.
History of the State of the Union address
The earliest example of the State of the Union address comes from the first President of the United States, George Washington. In 1790 he delivered an “Annual Message” to Congress, the shortest such speech to date at just 1,089 words.
Both Washington and his successor, President John Adams, gave their annual speech in person but President Thomas Jefferson offered his in the form of a written message instead. It remained a written message for over 100 years until President Woodrow Wilson gave his 1913 address in person.
It was Wilson who helped evolve the Annual Message in the State of the Union with a more political spin, using the platform to promote and outline his agenda. However despite those advances during the WIlson administration the name “State of the Union” was not introduced until 1947, when President Harry Truman was in office.
Recent decades have seen two presidents forced to deliver their State of the Union address in more contentious situations, with both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump delivering their speeches amid their own impeachment trials.
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