Order Code RS20021
Updated March 7, 2006
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
The President’s State of the Union Message:
Frequently Asked Questions
Information Research Specialist
Knowledge Services Group
Thomas H. Neale
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
The Constitution mandates that the President “shall from time to time give to the
Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration
such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The President’s State of the
Union Message and address were known as the President’s Annual Message to Congress
until well into the 20th century. Presidents Washington and Adams delivered their
messages to Congress in person, but President Jefferson abandoned the practice as
“monarchical” and time consuming, sending written messages instead. This precedent
was followed until President Wilson personally appeared before Congress in 1913.
President Franklin Roosevelt adopted Wilson’s practice of personal delivery, and it has
since become a contemporary tradition. With the advent of radio (1923) and television
(1947) coverage of the address, it gained great importance by providing a nationwide
platform for the President.
Today, the annual State of the Union Message is usually delivered by the President
at an evening joint session of Congress during the second, third, or fourth week of
January. However, some Presidents have chosen not to deliver a State of the Union
Message the year they were inaugurated, or, in some cases, in the January just prior to
their departure from office. Now broadcast and web cast to a “prime time” national and
international audience, the address serves several functions: as a report to Congress and
the nation on national conditions; as a platform to announce and rally support for the
President’s legislative agenda for the coming year; and as a unique opportunity for the
chief executive to convey personally his vision for the nation to Congress and the
American people. In order to ensure continuity of government, one cabinet officer and,
as of 2003, selected Members of Congress, are absent from the Capitol during the
address. This report takes the format of answers to frequently asked questions about the
State of the Union Message and address. It will be updated annually.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
What is the State of the Union Message? The State of the Union Message
is a communication from the President of the United States to Congress and the nation in
which the chief executive reports on conditions in the United States and, sometimes,
around the world, recommends a legislative program for the coming session of Congress,
and frequently presents his views about and vision for the present and future.
What Section of the Constitution Authorizes the Message? Article II,
Section 3, clause 1 of the United States Constitution authorizes the State of the Union
Message, stating: “He [the President] shall from time to time give to the Congress
Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such
measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
When Was the First State of the Union Message Delivered, and by
Which President? What Was the Early Practice? President George Washington
delivered the first regular annual message before a joint session of Congress, in New
York, on January 8, 1790. During the administrations of Presidents Washington and John
Adams, the President customarily appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver
the address personally. Each house subsequently debated and approved official replies
to the President’s message, which were then delivered personally to the President by
delegations of Senators and Representatives.
When Did the President Stop Delivering the Message Personally, and
Why? How Long Did this Practice Persist? President Thomas Jefferson changed
the procedure followed by his predecessors with his first annual message (December 8,
1801). His private secretary delivered copies of the message to both houses of Congress,
to be read by clerks in the House and Senate. Jefferson’s change was intended to simplify
a ceremony that he believed to be an aristocratic imitation of the British monarch’s
Speech from the Throne, and thus unsuitable to a republic. Further, preparing a response
in Congress consumed valuable time during short legislative sessions.
Who Revived the Tradition of Personal Presidential Appearances?
Jefferson’s precedent was followed until April 8, 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson
appeared before Congress to deliver personally a special message on tariff and bank
reform. President Wilson is also widely credited with expanding the scope of the annual
message, transforming it from a report on the activities of the executive departments into
a blueprint for the President’s legislative program for the coming congressional session
and year. Wilson subsequently delivered six of his annual messages in person (19131918); President Warren Harding, two (1921 and 1922); and President Calvin Coolidge,
one (1923). President Herbert Hoover made no personal appearances before Congress.
President Franklin Roosevelt established the personal appearance as a permanent tradition
with his 1934 State of the Union Message, but he and several later chief executives also
chose to deliver a written message in preference to a personal appearance on at least one
How Many Annual or State of the Union Messages Have Been
Delivered? When and Where Does the Ceremony Take Place? Has the
Message Always Been Known by this Name? As of January 31, 2006, 217 annual
messages and State of the Union Messages had been delivered by Presidents; of these, 73
were delivered in person by the chief executive.
Until the 20th amendment changed the opening time for congressional sessions, the
annual message was delivered in December. Since 1934, messages have been delivered
on a range of dates, between January 3 and February 2 of each year. The State of the
Union Message is now customarily delivered at the Capitol, in the chamber of the House
of Representatives, before a joint session of both houses of Congress.
The message was generally known as “the President’s Annual Message to Congress”
until well into the 20th century. Although some historians suggest that the phrase “State
of the Union” emerged only after World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1934
message is identified in his papers as his “Annual Message to Congress on the State of
the Union.” According to the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, it was
known informally as the State of the Union Address from 1942 to 1946, and has been
known “generally” by the same name since 1947.1
Which Was the Shortest Message? The Longest? What Is the Average
Length of Messages in Modern Times? Most evidence on the length of State of
the Union Messages is anecdotal, as comprehensive information has not been collected;
for the record, however, President Washington’s first annual message was surely one of
the shortest, comprising only 833 words. If contemporary speech delivery guidelines
(which range from 115 to 175 words per minute) are used to calculate the length of time
he spoke, Washington would have taken between four and seven minutes to deliver his
first message. This estimate does not account for interruptions for any applause he may
have received, although this was perhaps unlikely, given the solemnity attached to the
proceedings at that time. President Harry Truman’s 1946 message was the longest to
date, at over 25,000 words. This was a unique effort, however, as it combined both the
State of the Union and Annual Budget Messages, and was not delivered personally by the
President.2 Following Jefferson’s abandonment of personal delivery, annual messages
tended to grow in length throughout the 19th century, often reaching more than 10,000
words, and became, in effect, an annual report from the executive branch to Congress.
This trend was reversed by Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt’s return to the practice of
personal delivery. Today, the message tends to be measured in delivery time, rather than
in the number of words it contains. For instance, President George W. Bush’s 2006
message took 51 minutes to deliver, and was interrupted by applause more than 60 times.3
Which President Delivered the Most Messages? Which the Fewest?
Has Any President Not Delivered a Message? The longest serving President,
Franklin Roosevelt, holds the record for the most State of the Union Messages delivered
— 12 — of which 10 were personal appearances before Congress. President Zachary
Taylor submitted only one written annual message, in 1849. Two Presidents did not serve
long enough to submit an annual message: William Henry Harrison, who died in 1841,
“State of the Union Address,” available at [http://clerk.house.gov/histHigh/Special_Exhibits/
stateUnion.html]. Much of this report’s information about the history of the State of the Union
address is found on this informative site.
Seymour H. Fersh, The View from the White House: A Study of the Presidential State of the
Union Messages (Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1961), pp. 110-111.
“State of the Union Address by the President” transcript at [http://www.whitehouse.gov/news
/releases/2006/01/20060131-10.html]. The White House transcript indicates 65 interruptions for
applause during the speech.
32 days after his inauguration, and James A. Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881 and
served only 199 days.4
How Have Advances in Communications Technology Affected the
Message? President Coolidge delivered the first annual message to be broadcast by
radio, in 1923. President Truman’s 1947 State of the Union Message was the first to be
broadcast by television. Free air time for the President’s message and the opposition
response is currently provided as a public service by commercial, public broadcast, and
cable networks. President George W. Bush’s 2002 address was the first to be made
available as a live web cast on the Web from the White House website, and the 2004
address was the first to be broadcast in high definition television.5 The advent of mass
electronic communications dramatically affected the format, audience, and impact of the
message. Commanding a steadily-growing audience of listeners and viewers, successive
Presidents learned to use the occasion as an appeal to the nation: the message evolved
from being a report to Congress to a direct address to the American people, a platform
from which the President announced, explained, and promoted his legislative agenda for
the coming year. President Lyndon Johnson recognized the importance of the national
audience in 1965, when he changed the time for his State of the Union Message from the
traditional mid-afternoon to 9:00 P.M., the better to attract the largest number of
television viewers, a practice all his successors have continued. The message traditionally
draws a large audience: President George W. Bush’s 2006 address was viewed by an
estimated 41.7 million people (according to Nielsen Media Research), an increase of
about 3 million from 2005.6 The largest audience recorded in recent years was 66.9
million, for President William Clinton’s 1993 speech on Administration goals (not a State
of the Union Address), while President Clinton’s 2000 address attracted the fewest
viewers in recent times, 31.5 million.7
What Procedures Are Currently Followed When the President Delivers
the Message? A concurrent resolution, agreed to by both chambers, sets aside a certain
date and time for a joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate “for the
purpose of receiving such communication as the President of the United States shall be
pleased to make to them.”8 At the appointed time, the Senators cross the Capitol to the
House chamber, where seats are reserved for them at the front of the chamber. The
Speaker and the Vice President (in his capacity as President of the Senate) occupy seats
at the dais, and the Speaker presides. Aside from reserved places for leadership, seats in
the chamber are not assigned to particular Members.9 The President is then escorted to
As noted previously, prior to the 20th amendment, Congress did not assemble until December
in most years, by which time both Harrison and Garfield had died.
“State of the Union Address,” available at [http://clerk.house.gov/histHigh/Special_Exhibits/
Lisa de Moraes, “ ‘American Idol’ Viewers Desert Ship of State,” Washington Post, Feb. 2,
“Briefly Noted,” Electronic Media, Feb. 3, 2003, 14.
S.Con.Res. 77, 109th Cong., 2nd sess.
Seats in the well of the House chamber are also reserved for the President’s Cabinet, any
the chamber by a specially-appointed committee of Members from both houses; upon
entering the chamber, he is announced by the House of Representatives' Sergeant-atArms. The Speaker then introduces the President, who then delivers his address.
One late 20th century innovation was the opposition response to the State of the
Union Message.10 In 1966, Senator Everett Dirksen and Representative Gerald Ford made
a televised joint Republican response to President Johnson’s message, a practice that has
since become a regular feature, and is usually broadcast shortly after the President has
completed his remarks. The format for the opposition response varies, but it usually
includes remarks by one or more party leaders (almost always Senators, Representatives,
or state governors), who are nationally known, or are considered to be promising
emerging political figures. In a more recent innovation, initiated by President Ronald
Reagan, the chief executive will frequently invite citizens who have distinguished
themselves in some field of service or endeavor to be his personal guests in the gallery.
Usually, the achievements or programs for which the President publicly salutes them also
serve to underscore some major element of his message.
What Precautions Are Taken at the Address to Assure Continuity of
Government? Customarily, one member of the President’s Cabinet does not attend.
This precaution is taken in order to provide continuity in the presidency in the event a
catastrophe were to result in the death or disablement of the President, the Vice President,
and other officials in the line of presidential succession gathered in the House chamber.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson stayed away from the Capitol during the 2006
address. Then-Secretary of Commerce Donald L. Evans was the cabinet member who did
not attend the State of the Union address in both 2004 and 2005.11 In a post-September
11, 2001, development that began with the 2003 address, congressional leadership
responded to increased concern over security by designating two Members of each house
of Congress, representing both parties, to be absent from the Capitol during the
President’s speech. Members absent from the 2006 address were Senators Byron Dorgan
and Ted Stevens and Representatives Eric Cantor and George Miller.12
In Contemporary Practice, Is There a State of the Union Message Every
Year? There have been occasional variations in presidential practices concerning the
State of the Union Message since World War II. For instance, the past four Presidents
(Ronald Reagan in 1981, George H. W. Bush in 1989, William Clinton in 1993, and
George W. Bush in 2001) have chosen not to give an official State of the Union Message
the year they were first inaugurated, having just previously delivered a keynote inaugural
Justices of the Supreme Court who choose to attend, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Members of
the diplomatic corps, who are seated in the gallery, also frequently attend.
“Opposition” in this case refers to the party that does not control the presidency.
“Veterans Affairs Secretary, Four Lawmakers Skip Speech as Precaution,” Associated Press,
Feb. 1, 2006. For more information on presidential succession, see CRS Report RL32969,
Presidential Succession: An Overview with Analysis of Legislation Proposed in the 109th
Congress, by Thomas H. Neale.
Ibid. For more information on the issue of continuity in government, see CRS Report RS21089,
Continuity of Government: Current Federal Arrangements and the Future, by Harold C. Relyea.
address. In each instance their first speech to a joint session of Congress closely followed
their inauguration, but was not officially categorized as a “State of the Union Message.”13
One observer noted in 1993 that by not calling such an address “State of the Union,” the
President could present a more focused message, while still deriving “the benefits of a
joint session; nothing competes with the pomp and circumstances of the evening ....”14
Some recent Presidents have also preferred not to deliver a State of the Union Message
immediately prior to their departure from office, although several have given farewell
addresses in the last days of their presidencies. President Eisenhower’s farewell message,
broadcast to the nation on January 17, 1961, became famous for its warnings against the
“military-industrial complex.”15 President Reagan delivered a televised farewell address
to the nation from the Oval Office on January 11, 1989,16 a practice followed by President
Clinton on January 18, 2001.17
Conversely, outgoing and incoming Presidents have occasionally given successive
State of the Union Messages within weeks of each other. President Truman’s final
message, delivered in printed form to Congress on January 7, 1953, was closely followed
by President Eisenhower’s first message, delivered in person at the Capitol on February
2. President Eisenhower’s last message was delivered in printed form to Congress on
January 12, 1961, and was similarly closely followed by President John Kennedy’s first
State of the Union address, which he delivered personally before Congress on January 30.
Does the President Always Deliver the State of the Union Message
Personally? Since World War II, Presidents have occasionally chosen not to deliver
a State of the Union Message in person. As noted previously, President Truman sent his
last message only in print, a practice subsequently followed by Presidents Eisenhower
(1961) and Carter (1981). In 1956, President Eisenhower was recuperating from a heart
attack, and was unable to deliver his message personally. From his Key West, Florida,
retreat, he prepared a seven-minute filmed summary of the message that was subsequently
broadcast nationwide.18 When President Richard Nixon sent a multi-part printed message
to Congress in 1973, his staff explained that “no oral message was planned because it
would follow closely on the heels of Nixon’s second inaugural address.”19
For instance, President Clinton’s joint session appearance (Feb. 17, 1993) was styled “Address
... on Administration Goals,” whereas that of President George W. Bush (Feb. 27, 2001) was
identified as an address “to the Joint Session of Congress.”
Chuck Alston, “To Make That First Big Splash, Presidents Head for the Hill,” Congressional
Quarterly Weekly Report, vol. 51, Feb. 13, 1993, 301.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People,” in
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960-61
(Washington: GPO, 1961), pp. 1035-1040.
Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” in Public Papers of the Presidents of the
United States, Ronald Reagan, 1988-89 (Washington: GPO, 1991), pp. 1718-1723.
William J. Clinton, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” in Public Papers of the Presidents of the
United States, William J. Clinton, 2000-2001 (Washington: GPO, 2002), pp. 2952-2953.
Fersh, The View From the White House, 117.
“State of the Union,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, vol. 31, Jan. 13, 1973, 36.