WASHINGTON — The State of the Union address, delivered by the president to a special joint session of Congress each year, has become a television and, more recently, a social media spectacle. Among the more theatrical aspects of the phenomenon are the sustained applause breaks and standing ovations.
The report itself is required by the Constitution, which states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.”
But according to the American Presidency Project, the majority of American presidents have merely sent in this report as a letter, never appearing before Congress. George Washington and John Adams did deliver a speech, originally called the “Annual Message” according to the House of Representatives’ Office of the Historian. The first two presidents followed this trend all 12 years of their combined terms, but a habit didn’t form. In fact, no president would deliver such a message in person again until Woodrow Wilson in 1913, according to the American Presidency Project.
Since Wilson set the new precedent, only Herbert Hoover has gone through his entire presidency without giving a single Annual Message in person.
The House Office of the Historian shows that Calvin Coolidge gave the first radio address in 1923, and Harry Truman made the jump to television in 1947; the speech also formally became the “State of the Union Address” that year. Then Lyndon Johnson moved the address to prime time in 1965.
Today, television networks and websites—even the White House itself—broadcast the event around the globe.
As the event has evolved, it has grown longer. Prior to Clinton, the addresses were about 40 minutes long. Now they easily fill an hour. Clinton delivered the longest address, at 1:28:49; he also gave the second longest, at 1:24:58. One reason for the time spike may by the recent tradition of sustained applause breaks and standing ovations. Some statements draw uniform support from the crowd; others reveal the partisan divide of Congress.
Columnist William Safire demonstrated this in a 1987 New York Times opinion column. He reported that Tip O’Neill, Democratic speaker of the house, instructed his party to emphatically applaud targeted words of Ronald Reagan to try to twist the meaning of Reagan’s speech.
Clark McPhail, who has made a 50-year career out of studying collective action response, found it surprising how spontaneous applause can be. Whether or not a political party previously plans to clap, the length of the applause seems to be unpredictable.
“Whether it’s a political gathering, a religious gathering or a sport gathering, applause is more frequently unsolicited,” explained Clark McPhail, a professor emeritus in sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Stag Hunt, an online blog, tracked applause breaks during President Barack Obama’s 2012 address. The data show an applause break of more than 35 seconds in response to a statement supporting the military. Conversely, referencing added fees on big banks resulted in a meager response that lasted roughly 12 seconds.
With Republicans now in control of both the House and Senate, the parties’ applause strategies may change Tuesday night.
Medill News Service will be clocking the applause index from inside the House chamber.
Defining a standing ovation as “approximately two-thirds of the House standing,” a partisan ovation as “approximately one-half of the House standing,” and applause breaks being “pauses of five seconds or longer,” we will tweet crowd reaction and Obama’s corresponding “trigger” words.
GOP congressional leadership has suggested many of Obama’s past initiatives will be reversed with new legislation; the president has made it clear he will push back with veto power. Tuesday’s State of the Union—and crowd reaction— will likely provide a glimpse at what agreement, if any, can be reached by the two major American political parties in the president’s final two years in office.