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State of the Union Address Deeply Rooted in American History
Speech a constitutional obligation and a president tradition
By Bridget Hunter


February 04, 2010
Thursday AM

Washington - When President Obama addressed leaders of the U.S. federal government January 27 he was fulfilling a constitutional obligation and following a long-standing tradition of American presidents.

The U.S. Constitution requires that the president report to Congress "from time to time" on the "State of the Union." This constitutional requirement has evolved into the president's annual State of the Union address, which now serves several purposes. The speech reports on the condition of the United States both domestically and internationally, recommends a legislative agenda for the coming year and gives the president the opportunity to convey personally his vision for the nation.

In his first State of the Union address, Obama focused heavily on his domestic agenda, but also recapped his administration's foreign policy goals. How successful he will be in accomplishing his goals will depend in large part on how adroitly Obama can work with Congress and on how effectively he can bridge the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats, something of which this president is keenly aware.

"Now, I'm not naïve," Obama said. "I never thought the mere fact of my election would usher in peace, harmony, and some post-partisan era. I knew that both parties have fed divisions that are deeply entrenched. And on some issues, there are simply philosophical differences that will always cause us to part ways. These disagreements, about the role of government in our lives, about our national priorities and our national security, these have been taking place for over 200 years. They are the very essence of our democracy.

"But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about their opponent - a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct just because they can."

Obama promised that he "will not give up on changing the tone of our politics" and, in a message that seemed pointed squarely at Congress, added, "Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."


The tradition of the State of the Union address dates back to 1790 when George Washington, the first U.S. president, delivered his "Annual Message" to Congress in New York City, then the provisional capital of the United States. His successor, John Adams, followed suit.

But the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson, felt that such elaborate displays were not suitable for the new democratic republic. He delivered a written message rather than appearing in person. Jefferson's influence was such that for more than a century thereafter presidents delivered written Annual Messages to Congress.

In the early decades of the republic, most of these messages were lists of bills the president wanted the Congress to enact - reflecting the tenor of the times and the practical problems involved in building the young American nation. The speeches also dealt with the international situation and America's place in the world.

During the crisis that, more than any other, threatened the very existence of the American union - the Civil War - Abraham Lincoln wrote perhaps the most eloquent and memorable of all presidential messages sent to Congress.

"In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free - honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve," wrote Lincoln in 1862.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of delivering the Annual Message in person. This was a timely decision because the United States was on the eve of a mass media revolution that soon would bring presidents into the homes of Americans, first through radio, then by television.

With the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, Americans became accustomed to hearing their presidents on radio as well as to seeing and hearing them on the newsreels at the movies.

In 1945, the Annual Message formally became known as the State of the Union address. It also became a television, as well as radio, staple as sales of television sets skyrocketed in the 1950s. In recognition of the power of television to deliver the president's words to a huge audience, President Lyndon Johnson shifted the time of the address from the traditional midday to evening when more viewers could watch.

The tradition of the opposition response began in 1966 when two Republican congressmen, including future President Gerald Ford, delivered a televised Republican response to President Johnson's State of the Union address.


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