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Patricia A. O'Malley
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State of the Union Address 2019: Myths and Facts
Many journalists got this wrong.
January 17, 2019
Every year, the president delivers his State of the Union address to a special joint session of Congress. Donald Trump had planned do so on January 29. But that won’t happen.
For the past ten years, I’ve posted articles describing the purpose, history, and process of the SOTU. They’ve all been pretty much the same, until this year. Donald Trump prides himself on being a non-traditional president, so I suppose it’s fitting that his second SOTU breaks tradition too.
There is very little law and much tradition surrounding the annual address.
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. . . .
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.
Usually, the President makes 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 don’t know which secretary that will be until the big event.
Because Trump shut down the government just before Christmas, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rescinded her invitation to deliver his address on January 29, citing the inability of the Secret Service and Homeland Security Department to provide adequate security for an event in which nearly all U.S. government top leaders gather in one building.
I won’t recap their verbal jousting; you can find that elsewhere if you want it.
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 speculate on what it might be. Afterward, they analyze and second-guess it. I’m sure this year’s word would have been a doozy.
During his speech, the president acknowledges a few special guests. They're usually ordinary Americans, seated with the First Lady, who triumphed over difficult circumstances.
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. If there is a message this year, Trump will most likely spend most of the time ranting about his wall and 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 and offers a live stream of the speech. The Trump White House didn’t bother to do that last year. There’s no information about this year’s SOTU on the site.
After the Speech
Immediately afterward, the TV talking heads 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. There’s no word yet on who, if anyone, will do that this year.
Watch the Address
If there is a televised address, you can join 30 million of your friends and neighbors watching it live on C-Span and on most of the major television networks.
If you’ve never paid much attention to your government, this is a good time and place to start. You may not "do" politics, but it sure does you. Get the popcorn!
For More Information
The White House
The American Presidency Project: State of the Union Addresses and Messages
Read the Constitution
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. (Imagine that.) It could occur 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. ___________________________________
The public address in the House is cancelled.
The State of the Union message is not cancelled. Trump can deliver it at any time, by any method, and in any venue he chooses, other than the House chamber.
If it doesn’t occur, it’s because he doesn’t want to do it.