On February 28, Donald Trump will give his first presidential address to a joint session of Congress. Every president since Ronald Reagan has delivered a speech before both houses of Congress about a month after being sworn in. While it’s customary for commanders in chief in the modern era to give a State of the Union address to Congress in the early part of each year, the speeches by these new Oval Office occupants—Trump’s included—don’t officially use that label. Rather than fully appraising the state of the nation, these speeches by recently inaugurated chief executives often have centered on a theme. For example, in February 1981, Ronald Reagan focused on economic recovery in his first address to Congress, as did Barack Obama in February 2009 during his first big speech before the members of the House and Senate.
Since America’s founding, it’s been a duty of the president to provide reports to Congress about the state of the country. According to the Constitution, the chief executive “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The Constitution doesn’t stipulate how frequently a president must supply information to Congress, but George Washington established the precedent of a yearly address, delivering the first one to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790, in New York City, the country’s temporary capital.
Also not specified in the Constitution is the method by which a commander in chief must present his report to Congress. As a result, Thomas Jefferson skipped in-person annual messages, as these reports originally were known, opting instead to send them in writing to Congress. There were no live annual messages until 1913, when the 28th chief executive, Woodrow Wilson, revived the practice. According to the National Archives: “Before Wilson, the annual messages were mostly a report to Congress of the activities of the Executive branch. But after Wilson, and the increased attention the speech received, it became a launching pad for Presidential initiatives and was used to raise support for the President’s legislative agenda.”
Wilson personally delivered all his annual messages except for those in 1919 and 1920, which he submitted in writing due to poor health. Afterward, some presidents sent all or several of their yearly reports in writing. The last president to do so was Jimmy Carter, in 1981. (His three previous addresses were made both in person and in writing.) Carter’s 1981 written address, which clocked in at 33,667 words, was the longest in history. Bill Clinton’s 1995 speech was the lengthiest in-person address, at 9,190 words, while Washington’s 1790 message was the briefest, at 1,089 words.
As technology evolved, presidents were able to reach a broader swath of the American public with their addresses. Calvin Coolidge’s 1923 annual message was the first to be broadcast on radio. Harry Truman’s 1947 address was the first to be shown on TV. Also that year, the annual message officially became known as the State of the Union Address. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson gave the first State of the Union ever aired in primetime TV, in order to draw a bigger audience. The next year, the Republicans launched the practice of the opposition party presenting a televised response to the president’s speech. In 2002, George W. Bush’s State of the Union was the first to be webcast live on the Internet. President Obama used social media to publicize his addresses and reach younger audiences. His final State of the Union, in 2016, could be seen on TV, the White House website and YouTube channel and was available the next day on-demand across all devices with Amazon’s video service.
Prior to 1934, annual messages were presented in December. The schedule changed to January or February following the adoption of the 20th Amendment, which moved the start of the terms for the president and Congress from March to January. Two occupants of the White House died before ever giving an annual address: William Henry Harrison, who succumbed to pneumonia a month after his 1841 swearing-in, and James Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881, six months into his first term.
Among the addresses notable for their content are James Monroe’s 1823 annual message, which put forth the foreign policy that came to be called the Monroe Doctrine; Andrew Jackson’s 1830 message, in which he discussed his Indian removal policy; and James Polk’s 1848 message, in which he confirmed the discovery of gold in California, sparking the Gold Rush. Other memorable addresses include Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech, in which he talked about “four essential human freedoms,” and George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, in which he referred to North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an “axis of evil” that posed a dangerous threat to the world.
Today, in addition to members of Congress, State of the Union addresses are attended by the president’s Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, members of the diplomatic corps and Supreme Court justices. Since the 1960s, and possibly “much earlier,” according to the Senate Historical Office, a Cabinet member has been selected to sit out the address in a secure location in the event of a national disaster. In 1982, Ronald Reagan initiated the tradition of inviting ordinary citizens to attend the State of the Union address and sit in the presidential gallery. Reagan’s first guest was Lenny Skutnik, a federal office worker who several weeks earlier had jumped into the Potomac River to rescue a plane crash victim. In his speech, Reagan mentioned Skutnick, who was seated with the first lady.