The State of the Union~2014

The State of the Union~2014

Tonight we shall observe the federal Constitution in action as President Obama delivers the State of the Union message. This is mandated by the Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution which declares: “He [the president] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Note the language–”from time to time” it says. Can the president do it more than once a year? Yes. Can the president do it less than once a year? Yes. The president must do it from time to time. Why then do we see it happen once a year and why at this time of year?

Like organized religions, American politics are strong on tradition. President George Washington delivered the first state of the union in January of 1790 as the Congress met in New York City. He then delivered the second one that same year, in December of 1790. After that Washington did it only once a year as did his successor, John Adams. Thus began the tradition of once a year, deemed sufficient to satisfy the Constitutional mandate of “from time to time.”

Washington and Adams delivered their addresses in person as speeches to the Congress. However, Thomas Jefferson, the third president, wrote out his State of the Union message and sent it over to be read aloud to the Congress. While Jefferson wrote eloquently, he was a bit bashful and hated public speaking. Hence, from Jefferson’s administration until 1913, the presidents, even eloquent speakers like Abraham Lincoln, sent their State of the Union messages in writing to the Congress. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson caused a minor storm of controversy when he returned to the Washington-Adams tradition of a personal appearance before a joint session of Congress. Since 1913, every president has delivered the State of the Union message in a personal appearance before Congress, with only a few exceptions of an occasional written message.

Withe the exception of Washington’s first State of the Union, early presidents gave these messages in the fall, anytime between October and December until by President Andrew Jackson’s administration December became the customary month for delivery of the State of the Union message. This continued to 1934, when the change mandated by the ratification of the 20th Amendment in January of 1933 moved the opening of Congress from early March to early January. Since 1934, the State of the Union address has been delivered to Congress in January or February. The 20th Amendment declares in the first two articles as follows:

“1. The terms of the President and the Vice-President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

2. The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3rd day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.”

This amendment moved presidential inauguration from March to January as well. Thus in 1937 President Franklin D Roosevelt became the first one to take the oath of office in January instead of March. Other changes which gave us the format for the State of the Union to which we have become accustomed were President Calvin Coolidge’s 1923 message which was the first to be broadcast on radio, President Harry S. Truman’s 1947 message, the first to be broadcast on television and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s in 1965, the first to be delivered in the evening.

Some critics complain that the State of the Union messages are too “political.” For good or ill, such content is also included in the Constitutional mandate. Article II requires the president “to recommend to their [Congress’] Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” So especially in an election year we can expect what sounds like a party platform.

However much contemporary critics say that the State of the Union speeches are too long, when compared to several presidents in the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern presidents, even those with reputations as fine orators, are abstemious with their words.

 

President Taft

President Taft

The most verbose president was William Howard Taft whose State of the Union messages from 1909 through 1912 averaged 22,614 words each. In second place is Theodore Roosevelt whose messages from 1901 through 1908 averaged 19,656 words each. Third place goes to William McKinley who averaged 18,578 words in his presentations from 1897 through 1900. Fourth in length is James Polk whose messages from 1845 through 1848 averaged 18,014 words. In a distant fifth place we find James Buchanan who averaged 14,097 words in his State of the Union messages between 1857 and 1860.

President Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt

 

So far President Obama averages 7,004 words. Ronald Reagan averaged 4,596 words and Franklin Roosevelt averaged only 3,563 words each time.

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