President Barack Obama is set to deliver his final State of the Union address tonight. The White House says it will be a “non-traditional” speech that will take a “big-picture approach to some of the challenges and opportunities that we face” as a country. In doing so the president hopes to frame the public debate heading into an election year. His odds of succeeding are daunting, in large part because the power of the bully pulpit is greatly overrated. But as they say, you can’t win if you don’t play.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and Politico are just a few of the many media outlets previewing the speech. Rather than add to that onslaught, here are seven facts about the State of the Union that you may not know.
1) The U.S. Constitution requires the president to deliver a State of the Union address to Congress. Article II, Section 3 stipulates: 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.” Although the Constitution doesn’t define “from time to time,” by tradition the president conveys that message once each year.
2) Franklin Delano Roosevelt popularized the use of the phrase the “State of the Union” address. Before FDR took office, presidents had called their annual message to Congress just that, the “Annual Message,” even though the words “State of the Union” appear in the Constitution.
3) For more than a century, the State of the Union was delivered to Congress in writing rather than in a speech before a joint session of Congress. George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address—or “Annual Message” if you prefer—in person to Congress. John Adams did likewise during his one term in office. Thomas Jefferson, however, abandoned the in-person speech for the written message, perhaps because he wasn’t a great public speaker. The practice of a written annual message persisted until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of giving a speech. Ever since FDR’s time, presidents have almost always used speeches rather than written messages to fulfill their constitutional obligation to inform Congress about the State of the Union.
4) Some presidents go short in their State of the Union addresses, some go long, very long. Washington holds the record for brevity, using just 1,089 words in 1790. That’s only slightly longer than the typical newspaper op-ed. Jimmy Carter holds the record for the longest State of the Union address. His 1981 address, which he (thankfully) delivered to Congress in writing rather than in person, ran 33,667 words. (That’s the last time the State of the Union was delivered in writing.) Bill Clinton holds the record for the longest State of the Union address delivered in person, whether that is measured by the number of words (9,190 in 1995) or by the time it took to deliver (one hour, twenty-eight minutes, and forty-nine seconds in 2000). Obama’s speeches have (so far) averaged 7,001 words. His longest speech was 7,304 words in 2010. His shortest was 5,902 in 2009.
5) The prose in State of the Union addresses has gotten simpler over time. As the mode of delivering State of the Union addresses has shifted from writing to speaking and as the audience for the addresses has shifted from lawmakers to the country at large, their linguistic complexity has declined.
6) Two presidents never delivered an Annual Message or State of the Union Address. William Henry Harrison and James Garfield both died before they had the chance to deliver one, Harrison from pneumonia in 1841 and Garfield from an assassin’s bullet in 1881.
7) While most State of the Union addresses are only remembered by those who wrote them, the ones with a lasting impact have often tackled foreign policy. The Monroe Doctrine was promulgated in James Madison’s annual message in 1823. Theodore Roosevelt added his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in his annual message in 1904. FDR unveiled his “Four Freedoms” in his 1941 State of the Union address. And George W. Bush warned of the “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address speech.
James M. Lindsay is a senior vice president, the Director of Studies and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared in the Water’s Edge.
Image: Flickr/Architect of the U.S. Capitol.