How Has the State of the Union Changed Over the Years?

Filed in American Culture by on January 31, 2018 0 Comments

j1-journeys-state-of-the-unionPresident Trump delivered his first State of the Union Address to Congress on Tuesday, remarking on the perceived successes of his administration’s first year in office and plans for future governance. The majority of Trump’s speech focused on domestic policy, including his administration’s goals on immigration, tax cuts, and the economy.

Though the political issues concerning American life differ from president to president, the purpose of the State of the Union has largely remained the same across administrations.

As established in the Constitution, 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.”

Every president has delivered such an address annually (with only a couple of exceptions) since President George Washington established the practice in 1790. It was then called the “Annual Message.”

A few presidents have switched up the format, however.

President Thomas Jefferson, fearing that an in-person speech before Congress borrowed too heavily from the English monarchy, chose to give his address in writing. This model was adhered to for over a century, with some presidents choosing to write a message one year and present it orally the next. And the address was first broadcast to the American public in 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge delivered the speech over radio in a significant advancement for the new technology.

But the State of the Union as Americans know it now—televised, filmed live, and with plenty of opportunity for political theatrics—did not come about until 1947, when Harry Truman became the first president to hold a live, televised broadcast.

These new broadcast formats for the State of the Union—from in-person before Congress, to radio, television, and eventually the internet—were game-changers for the address. This opened the State of the Union to everyday Americans, and presidents’ style and messages fluctuated accordingly.

For instance, the timing of the address has changed. President Lyndon Johnson moved the broadcast to the evening for the first time, hoping to garner larger viewership. The length has likewise shifted over time—Washington’s address was only 833 words and is estimated to have lasted less than 10 minutes. Trump’s address this week, on the other hand, was an hour and 20 minutes, making it the third-longest State of the Union speech in the past 50 years.

Despite these changes, the address remains ceremonial and political for both the president and the American public.

Did you watch the State of the Union this year? Share your experience in the comments below.