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Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting ~ Community Matters
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State of the Union Address 2018: Myths and Facts
What You’ll See is Tradition, Not Law
January 26, 2018
Every year, the president delivers his State of the Union address to a special joint session of Congress. Donald Trump will do so Tuesday night, January 30, at 9:00 PM. The usual fanfare will accompany the event. There will surely be some surprises too.
The U.S. Constitution divides our government into three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. The courts are the judicial branch. Congress is the Legislative, or law-making, branch. The president heads the Executive, or management branch. The cabinet departments are in the Executive Branch and manage the nation's daily business under the president's direction. The president is the nation's chief executive officer, just like the CEO of a large corporation.
Eighteenth century communications weren't as fast or thorough as they are today. So our founders required the president to report to Congress occasionally on how the nation was doing. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution says:
He 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. . . .
Yes, that's all it says. The president is required to report "from time to time". The law does not require the report to be in person, on television, in January, or even once a year. The report could be in writing, in private meetings, or on Twitter. It could take place more or less often. If he wanted to, Trump could e-mail every member of Congress every day. Several presidents have delivered written messages. The American Presidency Project has issued a full report on SOTU addresses.
But Americans love a spectacle. Over the years, the process of delivering that information evolved into the exhibition we now call the State of the Union Address. The pomp and ceremony of the great assembly is all tradition. The entire Congress, all cabinet secretaries (except one), the Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President's Executive staff, the First Lady, and distinguished guests gather in the House chamber to hear the president's words. They meet there because it was originally the only place in Washington large enough to hold such a gathering.
A president’s first address to Congress is not considered a State of the Union address because he hasn’t been in office long enough to make such observations. The departing president makes his final SOTU address shortly before Inauguration Day for the next president.
So, on Tuesday, Donald Trump will make his first State of the Union address to a joint session of the United States Congress. He will make his grand entrance down the center aisle, shaking hands all the way. Traditionally, members of Congress divide themselves by party in the House and Senate chambers. All of the Democrats sit together on the left side of the center aisle; the Republicans sit on the right.
Security concerns arose over the years because all of the senior members of the government gather in one room for the event. Since all cabinet members are in the line of succession to the presidency, one member stays behind so that the government can carry on in the event of a disaster. Again, that's by tradition, not law. We won’t know which secretary that will be until the big event.
While it’s not required, the speech usually includes a single-word description of "the state of the union". Since most American journalists are too frightfully lazy to do anything resembling research, they latch onto that single word like it has magic powers. Beforehand, they will speculate on what it might be. Afterward, they will analyze and second-guess it.
In the address, the president normally recaps the past year's events and summarizes his administration's successes and failures. Then he lists the issues that he wants Congress to address this year. That usually includes taxes, the economy, terrorism, social programs, and other issues. We have no idea what Donald Trump will do, but you can bet that he will spend most of the time praising himself.
Since the internet’s debut, the White House website has always included a preview of the State of the Union Address about a week before the event. The Trump White House hasn’t bothered to do that.
During his speech, the president will acknowledge a few special guests. They are usually ordinary Americans, seated with the First Lady, who triumphed over difficult circumstances. Again, we don’t know what will happen this year.
After the Speech
Immediately afterward, the TV talking heads will pontificate about the magic word, the spectacle, the speech, the president’s proposals, the gaffes, the special guests, the First Lady’s wardrobe, any unusual occurrences, and what it all means for America.
Again by tradition, the news networks give television time to a member of the opposing party to deliver a rebuttal after President’s speech. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA) will deliver the Democrats’ rebuttal.
Watch the Address
Join 30 million of your friends and neighbors. You can watch the address live on C-Span and on most of the major television networks on Tuesday. Tuning in at 8:00 will give you plenty of time before the speech begins at 9:00. In previous presidencies, you could watch a live stream online on the White House website along with charts, graphs, and other information.
There is no such notice on the site this year.
If you’ve never paid much attention to your government, this is a good time and place to start. Enjoy!
For More Information
The White House
The American Presidency Project: State of the Union Addresses and Messages
Read the Constitution