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The State of the Union, Do We Have to?

The questions started last week in class, so the State of the Union… do we have to? Can she do that? Does it have to be on TV? Does it have to interrupt my show?  Does every station have to run it? While off topic, these were good questions and a good lesson on going directly to the source.  My answer let’s pull up the Constitution.  It states, “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.”  US Constitution, Article II, Section 3.  


So the answers were easy:

  • Do we have to have one? Yes
  • Can she do that? Yes
  • Does it have to be on TV? No
  • Does it have to interrupt my show? No
  • Does it have to run on every station? No

Then came the hard question, so why do we do it? And my answer, because it’s tradition. The State of the Union address has been part of our collective memory for a hundred years.  However, it hasn’t always been an address in person, in front of both houses of Congress.  In fact, there have only been 95 in person speeches given in our country’s history.  What today seems like a mandatory event, has taken various forms throughout history.  The address was first called an Annual Message and began as a report of executive branch’s activities and budget requests.  What we think of as the traditional speech became cemented into our culture as radio and television technology became widespread.  The United States House of Representatives highlights the impact of technology on their website.  Calvin Coolidge was the first to broadcast his speech over the radio, and Harry Truman conducted the first televised speech.  Lyndon Johnson was the first to deliver a televised evening speech and George W. Bush became the first to have a live webcast. 


Technology changed the delivery method, but the speeches themselves also changed.  The audience gradually shifted from members of Congress to the American public, and with that change came a shift in verbiage.  The Guardian analyzed the reading level of each speech in 2013 and declared that “The State of Our Union is . . . Dumber.”  Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all had speeches or letters written on a graduate or higher level, with Clinton, Bush and Obama producing speeches on a high school level. 


The letters or speeches are available on the UC Santa Barbara’s, The American Presidency Project and are a great primary source for students.  Students can be prompted to analyze the documents by answering the following questions:

  • Who was the audience?
  • Was this a report of executive activity, or a Presidential sales pitch?
  • Does the speech provide a clear justification for the legislation or actions of a President?
  • Is the President appealing to the audience’s emotions, or their logical or ethical reasoning?
  • Does the document indicate a partisan divide? Does it call for the American people to act?
  • If possible, can students read and watch the speech? Is there a difference?

How would you have students analyze the documents?  What can be learned from the documents? Oh, and when they ask, do we have to?  The answer is yes.