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)
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)
Recent presidents starting with Reagan, 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, Obama, and Trump have chosen not to do so. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Carter did 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|
|Joseph R. Biden||2021-present||2021*|
|Donald J. Trump||2017-2021||2017*||2018||2019||2020|
|George W. Bush||2005-2009||2005||2006||2007||2008|
|William J. Clinton||1997-2001||1997||1998||1999||2000|
|Gerald R. Ford||1974-1977||1975||1976||1977|
|Richard M. Nixon||1973-1974||1974||1973†||1974|
|Lyndon B. Johnson||1965-1969||1965||1966||1967||1968||1969|
|John F. Kennedy||1961-1963||1961||1962||1963|
|Dwight D. Eisenhower||1957-1961||1957||1958||1959||1960||1961|
|Harry S Truman||1949-1953||1949||1950||1951||1952||1953|
|Franklin D. Roosevelt||1945||1945‡||1945‡|
|Warren G. Harding||1921-1923||1921||1922|
|William Howard Taft||1909-1913||1909||1910||1911||1912|
|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|
|James K. Polk||1845-1849||1845||1846||1847||1848|
|William Henry Harrison||1841||no messages|
|Martin Van Buren||1837-1841||1837||1838||1839||1840|
|John Quincy Adams||1825-1829||1825||1826||1827||1828|
* Technically not a "State of the Union" Address. See explanation in essay above this table
|† 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:
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. 1999-2021. Available from the World Wide Web: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/324107/.