State of the Union: A history lesson

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
Tonight’s State of the Union address by President Barack Obama will be the 93rd instance in which a sitting U.S. president has addressed Congress in person. For those good with numbers, you’re right to suspect that the number should be much higher. Afterall, Obama is the 44th President of the United States. Why so few addresses? Well, the State of the Union wasn’t always as formal as it is today. In fact, it has only been called the State of the Union since 1947. But the history of the State of the Union goes back much further than 60 years.

The State of the Union is called for officially in the United State’s constitution. Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 reads: 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.

Note that the constitution doesn’t say how often the President is required to address Congress, or what form that address might take. The president doesn’t have to give a speech to Congress, and he doesn’t have to do it in January, either. Much of the tradition surrounding the State of the Union comes from historical precedence.

George Washington, as you can imagine, was the first president to give a state of the union address–which was formally known back then as the Annual Message. Washington visited Congress in New York City on January 8, 1790. However, the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, didn’t much care for standing before Congress and reading a speech. Instead, Jefferson wrote down his address and had a clerk read it. It was more like a letter than an actual prepared speech. That practice continued for well over 100 years until Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, revived Washington’s tradition and visited Congress to deliver his address.

Woodrow Wilson envisioned the speech differently from his predecessors. For Wilson, it was an opportunity to rally support around his presidential agenda. It became less of a report on the state of the Union, and more of a hopeful or aspirational speech about what the Union could become. That tradition, of rallying support for particular presidential causes, has been more or less the same since Wilson. And, in 1947, the name of the address was formally changed to what we know it by today, the State of the Union Address.

The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara has gathered some interesting facts about the nearly three centuries of addresses. The longest spoken address was Bill Clinton in 1995. It clocked in at 1 hour and 24 minutes. The longest written address was Jimmy Carter, at more than an astounding 33,000 words. The shortest ever was the first one ever. George Washington’s speech was just over a thousand words.

Tonight’s speech, like Woodrow Wilson’s 100 years ago, will be an aspirational rallying cry for President Obama’s policy agenda. A central theme of the President’s speech this evening is expected to be an emphasis on rising income equality in the United States, coupled with a push to raise the minimum wage. We’ll comment more in the weeks to come, but raising the minimum wage makes good sense as a way for overcoming increasing income disparity in America. In fact, a low minimum wage amounts to a public subsidy to private businesses as low income workers are forced to rely on social welfare programs to supplement their incomes. In other words, if you want to reduce social welfare spending, raise the minimum wage.

The President has his work cut out for him.

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