It feels like it’s set in stone.
Each year, Congress invites the incumbent president to speak on the House floor. All three branches of government — save for one cabinet member, who is the “designated survivor” in case of disaster — descend on Capitol Hill in time for the prime time TV cameras. The president enters the chamber last; the vice president and the speaker of the House sit behind him, and the first lady sits above him in the gallery. The president speaks, to a constant stream of applause. The opposing party later records its response.
But while President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday fulfills his constitutional mandate to address the Congress “from time to time,” the ritual that accompanies it is almost all unwritten Washington code, handed down through historical precedent since 1913.
Tuesday evening’s schedule is expected to go similarly to last year’s State of the Union address. Here’s how it went down when President Obama addressed the joint session on Jan. 27, 2010:
Circa 8:30 p.m.: The House reconvenes.
8:37 p.m.: The vice president and the Senate enter the House chamber.
8:49 p.m.: The House speaker and the vice president appoint members to the escort committee, who will escort the president into the chamber.
8:55 p.m.: Supreme Court members enter the chamber.
8:56 p.m.: The first lady arrives in the gallery.
8:58 p.m.: The president’s cabinet arrives.
9:05 p.m.: The president arrives.
9:10 p.m.: The speaker presents the president to the joint session.
9:11 p.m.: The president’s speech begins.
10:20 p.m.: The speech ends.
From mail to Annual Message to State of the Union
Presidents used to just mail their speeches in — literally. George Washington and John Quincy Adams had come to Congress to speak, but Thomas Jefferson, who took office in 1801, had decided that was a bit too King-like, Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says. So he and the next hundred years’ worth of presidents simply sent Congress a yearly letter.
That changed when Woodrow Wilson, a former political science and history professor, took to the House floor on Dec. 2, 1913, at the end of his first year in office.
“Gentlemen of the Congress,” he began, according to archive data from the American Presidency Project. “I take the liberty of addressing you on several matters which ought, as it seems to me, particularly to engage the attention of your honorable bodies, as of all who study the welfare and progress of the Nation.”
Wilson noted his “constitutional duty to ‘give to the Congress information of the state of the Union,'” but the speech at the time was known as the “Annual Message.”
But the speech wasn’t tradition just yet. Wilson gave six of his eight speeches orally; Herbert Hoover, three presidents later, gave none, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Enter Franklin Roosevelt. He made it a staple, called it the “State of the Union”, and his supporters may have been the first to cheerlead. Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office has accounts of Democrats “vigorously applauding” FDR during speeches in the 1930s.
A Cold War quirk becomes a mainstay
The Cold War brought about a new set of concerns for a joint session of Congress. “In the nuclear age, in the 1950s, they began worrying about having everybody under the same roof,” Ritchie says.
The solution, “to ensure the continuity of government,” as the Congressional Research Office puts it: Keep one cabinet member away from the Capitol.
This practice endures to this day. Big shots, like the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense, generally aren’t called upon, though they’re not required to attend. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wasn’t at last year’s address, even though Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan was the one required to stay away.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Congress joined in on the act. Two members from each chamber — one from each party — now join the cabinet member on leave in case of catastrophe.
TV, prime time, and national heroes
“On this Hill which was my home, I am stirred by old friendships,” President Lyndon Johnson began his groundbreaking speech on the first Monday after New Year’s. “[T]onight, now, in 1965, we begin a new quest for union,” he continued.
Johnson had already set a new precedent by specifically addressing “my fellow Americans” in his speech the year before, which had come just seven weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
But what set this State of the Union apart was its timing, not its words. Johnson’s address began at 9:04 p.m. — prime time, instead of daytime.
Harry Truman had delivered the first-ever televised State of the Union 18 years earlier. But he didn’t mention it in his speech, and it would have only mattered to a select few Americans with early TV sets.
Johnson’s timing shift, though, ushered in an era of State of the Union spectacle. By the 1970s, America had entered a “golden age of political television,” according to Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas.
The television had become mainstream, but there were still only the networks. So if the president was on CBS, Americans couldn’t change the channel to MTV. “There was a lot of accidental viewers,” Eshbaugh-Soha says.
More than 58 percent of American households owning a television set watched Gerald Ford’s 1976 State of the Union, for example, according to a 1999 analysis by Matthew A. Baum and Samuel Kernell in The American Political Science Review.
That kind of audience has declined precipitously since, but certainly TV has served to “enhance the pomp and circumstance of the address,” Eshbaugh-Soha says.
It is also perhaps why President Ronald Reagan in 1982 brought in one of the most recent State of the Union quirks.
Noting the Air Florida crash two weeks earlier which had killed 78 people, Reagan honored “the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.”
Since then, each president has brought special guests to State of the Union speeches. The guests have ranged from an Army Sergeant involved in the Grenada invasion and a 12-year-old music prodigy (both brought in by Reagan) to Rosa Parks and Hank Aaron (Clinton) to flight attendants who helped stop the “shoe bomber” from causing a plane crash (George W. Bush).
Politicized, but by the (unwritten) book
So the speech has long been used for political posturing. But while some members of Congress move to show civility by sitting with members across the isle on Tuesday, it’s worth noting that the State of the Union already has its own history of courteousness.
Congress doesn’t have to invite the president, for starters. But it always does, even in a divided, partisan government. Declining to do so “would be self-defeating on everybody’s part, so it’s not even contemplated,” Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says.
There also isn’t any set rule on seating (though seats near the front are reserved for Supreme Court members and high-ranking Senators), or on how to react to the speech. But, as the outcry after Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to a joint session on health care proved, there are certain things you just don’t do.
The State of the Union “shows that there is some formality, there is some respect,” Eshbaugh-Soha says. Plus, the opposition party has ample room to fight back — especially because the speech leaves the president on-the-record about his legislative plans.
And when Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., delivers his opposing speech Tuesday evening, he’ll be following a precedent set in 1966 by Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, R-Ill., and then-Rep. Gerald Ford, R-Mich., who were responding to President Johnson.
The president, of course, gets to set the agenda for the upcoming year, though Eshbaugh-Soha notes that he’s limited in time and scope — He’s usually able to focus his speech on three or four major issues that he really wants to work on. “I would ballpark it on three to four policies that he can be successful on,” Eshbaugh-Soha says.
Then comes the “laundry list”, as Eshbaugh-Soha calls it, where the president ticks off a number of things that he’d like to see done. These can be long-term goals, or even just ideas, some of which are meant to appeal to federal agencies; the president doesn’t typically expect to see them get done any time soon.
President Reagan, for example, told the country in his 1982 address that “We look forward to the enactment of a responsible clean air act to increase jobs while continuing to improve the quality of our air.”
As Eshbaugh-Soha notes, “there was no substance behind that.”