Annual Messages to Congress on the State of the Union (Washington 1790 - Trump 2019)

All of our State of the Union (SOTU) Resources

            1.  Introductory Essay
            2.  Table of all SOTU Messages and Addresses
            3.  Length of State of the Union Messages and Addresses in Words
            4.  Length of State of the Union Addresses in Minutes (starting1964)
            5.  List of Acknowledged Guests Sitting in House Gallery
            6.  List of Opposition Responses
            7.  Cabinet Members Not in Attendance ("Designated Survivor;" (starting1984)

Introductory Essay

State of the Union Messages to the Congress are mandated by Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution: "He 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." 

George Washington established the precedent that clarifies the phrase "from time to time." Since 1790, with occasional exceptions, State of the Union messages have been delivered once annually.

A misconception found even in some academic literature is that the State of the Union is an orally delivered message presented to a joint session of Congress.  With a few exceptions, this has been true in the modern era--starting around 1933.  However, beginning with Jefferson's 1st State of the Union (1801) and lasting until Taft's final message (1912), the State of the Union was a written (and often lengthy) report sent to Congress to coincide with a new Session of Congress..  

Federalists Washington and Adams had personally addressed the Congress, but Jefferson was concerned that the practice of appearing before the representatives of the people was too similar to the British monarch's practice of addressing each new Parliament with a list of policy mandates, rather than "recommendations."  

Jefferson's practice changed in 1913 with Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson believed the presidency was more than an impersonal institution and active and visible presidential leadership was needed by both the people and the Congress. As an expression of this philosophy, Wilson delivered oral messages to Congress, citing the authority of the Constitution.  (For an excellent discussion of the contemporary commentary on both the Jefferson and Wilson innovations, we recommend an article by Anne Pluta, "Reassessing the Assumptions behind the Evolution of Popular Presidential Communication," Presidential Studies Quarterly 45:1 (March 2015): 70-90.)

For health reasons, Wilson did not address Congress in 1919 and 1920. Warren Harding's two messages (1921 and 1922) and Calvin Coolidge's first (1923) were also spoken messages.  Subsequently, Coolidge's remaining State of the Unions (1924-28) and all four of Hoover's (1929-32) were written.  

Franklin D. Roosevelt consolidated the modern practice of delivering a spoken State of the Union beginning with his first in 1934. However, there continued to be exceptions. In some cases there was only a written message and no spoken address. These include Truman (1946 and 1953), Eisenhower (1961), and Carter (1981). In some years there were both written messages and oral addresses. Nixon in 1972 presented both an oral address and a written message. In 1973 and 1974, Nixon submitted multiple documents entitled "State of the Union."  Carter also spoke and wrote in 1978, 1979, and 1980. Roosevelt's last (1945) and Eisenhower's 4th (1956) were technically written messages although they also addressed the American people via radio summarizing their reports (rather than speaking to a Joint Session of Congress). Scholarly research needs to recognize the variability in these practices.

Televising the State of the Union was a further transformation of the spoken Addresses.  The first televised address was Truman's in 1947.  (Later that same year Truman was the first to televise an address from the Oval Office.)  In 1965, Lyndon Johnson began the practice of making the address in the evening in prime time and relying on teleprompters.  (New York Times columnist Russell Baker called this one of Johnson's "worst mistakes" inflicting a hardship on the public. 1/13/1966 p. 24) This change to prime-time addresses vastly expanded the immediate audience.  This also marked the start of of instantaneous television commentary following the speech.

The following year, 1966, began the practice of opposition party responses to the Address. In the first instance, Senator Everett Kirksen and Representative Gerald R. Ford held a joint news conference 15 minutes after the end of the President's address.  But the main GOP rebuttal was not until five days later in a thirty-minute video-taped telecast carried at different times by the main TV networks.  ABC explained the decision as one of granting equal time. (New York Times, 1/14/1966, p. 79)

The five most recent presidents (Reagan, Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama) addressed a joint session of Congress shortly after their inaugurations but these messages are technically not considered to be "State of the Union" addresses. Reagan's 1981 address is called, "Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery."  Bush's 1989 and Clinton's 1993 messages are called "Administration Goals" speeches.  

G.W. Bush's 2001 speech was actually his "Budget Message," and Presidents Obama and Trump delivered a similar non-State of the Union "Address before a Joint Session of the Congress."  For research purposes, it is probably harmless to categorize these as State of the Union messages (as we do). The impact of such a speech on public, media, and congressional perceptions of presidential leadership and power should be the same as if the address was an official State of the Union.  These speeches are included in the table below with an asterisk.

The State of the Union is delivered near the beginning of each session of Congress.  Before 1934 this meant the State of the Union was delivered usually in December. Since 1934, the State of the Union has been delivered near the beginning each year, with some presidents delivering a final message at the end of their last term (Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Carter).  The table below reflects each message's placement in the President's term.

President George W. Bush delivered his last State of the Union Address on January 28, 2008. Presidents have the right to deliver either a written or spoken State of the Union in the days immediately before leaving office in January. However, recent Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have chosen not to do so. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Carter chose to do so.

In 2019, in the midst of a government shutdown related to conflicts about how to adequately secure the Southern border, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi withdrew an invitation previously extended for a State of the Union Address tentatively scheduled for January 29, 2019.  At that point, Speaker Pelosi had not yet asked for a vote on a Concurrent Resolution necessary to schedule a Joint Session of Congress. (President Reagan had delayed a SOTU in the wake of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.)  After President Trump agreed to a temporary reopening of the government, an invitation was extended to address a Joint Session on February 5, 2019.  Is this a new front in institutional conflict between President and Congress, or just a passing moment in a particularly conflictual Presidency?

Table of All State of the Union Messages and Addresses
President Years of term  Delivered as a Speech (Address)             Delivered as a Written Message
    1st 2nd 3rd 4th end 4th 1st 2nd 3rd 4th end 4th
Donald J. Trump 2017-pres. 2017* 2018 2019 2020            
Barack Obama 2013-2017 2013 2014 2015 2016            
  2009-2013 2009* 2010 2011 2012            
George W. Bush 2005-2009 2005 2006 2007 2008            
  2001-2005 2001* 2002 2003 2004            
William J. Clinton 1997-2001 1997 1998 1999 2000            
  1993-1997 1993* 1994 1995 1996            
George Bush 1989-1993 1989* 1990 1991 1992            
Ronald Reagan 1985-1989 1985 1986 1987 1988            
  1981-1985 1981* 1982 1983 1984            
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981   1978 1979 1980     1978 1979 1980 1981
Gerald R. Ford 1974-1977     1975 1976 1977          
Richard M. Nixon 1973-1974   1974       1973† 1974      
  1969-1973   1970 1971 1972         1972  
Lyndon B. Johnson 1965-1969 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969          
  1964-1965       1964            
John F. Kennedy 1961-1963 1961 1962 1963              
Dwight D. Eisenhower 1957-1961 1957 1958 1959 1960           1961
  1953-1957 1953 1954 1955 1956‡         1956  
Harry S Truman 1949-1953 1949 1950 1951 1952           1953
  1945-1949     1947 1948     1946      
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1945 1945         1945        
  1941-1945 1941 1942 1943 1944            
  1937-1941 1937 1938 1939 1940            
  1933-1937   1934 1935 1936            
Herbert Hoover 1929-1933           1929 1930 1931 1932  
Calvin Coolidge 1925-1929           1925 1926 1927 1928  
  1923-1925     1923           1924  
Warren G. Harding 1921-1923 1921 1922                
Woodrow Wilson 1917-1921 1917 1918           1919 1920  
  1913-1917 1913 1914 1915 1916            
William Howard Taft 1909-1913           1909 1910 1911 1912  
Theodore Roosevelt 1905-1909           1905 1906 1907 1908  
  1901-1905           1901 1902 1903 1904  
William McKinley 1897-1901           1897 1898 1899 1900  
Grover Cleveland 1893-1897           1893 1894 1895 1896  
Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893           1889 1890 1891 1892  
Grover Cleveland 1885-1889           1885 1886 1887 1888  
Chester A. Arthur 1881-1885           1881 1882 1883 1884  
James A. Garfield 1881 no messages
Rutherford B. Hayes 1877-1881           1877 1878 1879 1880  
Ulysses S. Grant 1873-1877           1873 1874 1875 1876  
  1869-1873           1869 1870 1871 1872  
Andrew Johnson 1865-1869           1865 1866 1867 1868  
Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865           1861 1862 1863 1864  
James Buchanan 1857-1861           1857 1858 1859 1860  
Franklin Pierce 1853-1857           1853 1854 1855 1856  
Millard Fillmore 1850-1853             1850 1851 1852  
Zachary Taylor 1849-1850           1849        
James K. Polk 1845-1849           1845 1846 1847 1848  
John Tyler 1841-1845           1841 1842 1843 1844  
William Henry Harrison 1841 no messages
Martin Van Buren 1837-1841           1837 1838 1839 1840  
Andrew Jackson 1833-1837           1833 1834 1835 1836  
  1829-1833           1829 1830 1831 1832  
John Quincy Adams 1825-1829           1825 1826 1827 1828  
James Monroe 1821-1825           1821 1822 1823 1824  
  1817-1821           1817 1818 1819 1820  
James Madison 1813-1817           1813 1814 1815 1816  
  1809-1813           1809 1810 1811 1812  
Thomas Jefferson 1805-1809           1805 1806 1807 1808  
  1801-1805           1801 1802 1803 1804  
John Adams 1797-1801 1797 1798 1799 1800            
George Washington 1793-1797 1793 1794 1795 1796            
  1789-1793 1790 1790 1791 1792            

* Technically not a "State of the Union" Address.   See explanation in essay above this table
In 1956 President Eisenhower sent a written message to Congress, and also addressed the Nation via radio with a summary of his message. He did not deliver a speech before a joint session of Congress.
In 1945 President Roosevelt sent a written message to Congress, and also addressed the Nation via radio with a summary of his message. He did not deliver a speech before a joint session of Congress.

† In 1973 President Nixon delivered a series of six written State of the Union messages to Congress. One message was an overview, followed by five additional messages each of which focused on a specific public policy theme. The president also delivered a radio address to the nation before each policy-specific message was sent to Congress. Links to each individual message and radio address are below:
February 2, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress: Overview and Goals
February 15, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on Natural Resources and the Environment
February 22, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on the Economy
March 1, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on Human Resources
March 8, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on Community Development
March 14, 1973 State of the Union Message to the Congress on Law Enforcement and Drug Abuse Prevention
February 14, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on Natural Resources and the Environment
February 21, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on the Economy
February 24, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on Human Resources
March 4, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on Community Development
March 10, 1973 Radio Address About the State of the Union Message on Law Enforcement and Drug Abuse Prevention

Citation: Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley. "The State of the Union, Background and Reference Table." The American Presidency Project. Ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California. 1999-2020. Available from the World Wide Web: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/324107/.