The president’s State of the Union speech: Why it matters
Millions of people around the world are expected to tune in to catch President Biden’s State of the Union address February 7.
The speech to a joint session of Congress is an opportunity for the president to review the past year’s accomplishments and preview his agenda for the coming year.
But the speech at the U.S. Capitol every year (except during a president’s first year in office) also illustrates U.S. democracy in action. It is the only time — other than inaugurations and state funerals — that all branches of the federal government are in the same room. The president represents the executive branch, members of the House of Representatives and Senate represent the legislative branch, and Supreme Court justices represent the judicial branch.
Most of the president’s trusted department officials and advisers, called the Cabinet, also attend.
The address originates in the U.S. Constitution. Article II, Section 3, clause 1 of the Constitution states that 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.”
This will be President Biden’s second State of the Union speech. But he can claim close familiarity to such addresses, having been in attendance as a senator or the vice president on scores of such occasions as eight presidents who served before him gave their reports.
A look back
Some presidents’ words from State of the Union speeches have become famous.
Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined his “Four Freedoms” on January 6, 1941 — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear — to make the case for more U.S. involvement in World War II.
George W. Bush coined the “axis of evil” phrase during his 2002 State of the Union address, designating Iran, Iraq and North Korea as sponsors of terrorism.
And sometimes the speech becomes well known for the invited guests who attend. The administration of President Ronald Reagan started a tradition in 1982 when the first lady invited Lenny Skutnik to sit with her. He had saved a passenger’s life after an Air Florida plane crashed into the Potomac River in Washington (see sidebar).
Shortest speech: George Washington (1,089 words)
Longest: Jimmy Carter (33,667 words)
First televised: Harry S. Truman in 1947
First live webcast: George W. Bush in 2002