State of the Union

Watch the State of the Union Address Tuesday at 9:00. Turn in a one page synopsis of the speech and your opinion of it for 5 points extra credit.

Every year for decades, presidents have traveled to Capitol Hill to deliver their State of the Union address. They’ve done it because the Constitution told them to. More or less.

Actually, all the Constitution says, in Article II, Section 3, is that the president 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.”
Not a word about the pageantry of the president’s slow walk down the aisle to front of the House chamber, getting handshakes and hugs from members of his party. Not a word about the major TV networks pre-empting regular prime-time coverage to broadcast the speech. Not a word about tallying up how long the president spoke and how many times he was interrupted by applause.
In fact, if a president wants to literally mail in his remarks, that would be fine.
While the first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered their messages in person, Thomas Jefferson sent a written message. Other presidents followed Jefferson’s lead until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson decided that he would deliver his speech in person.
Since then every president has gone to the Capitol to deliver his message to an audience that includes Congress, members of the Supreme Court and other Washington luminaries including Cabinet members (except one who stays away to maintain the line of succession in the event of a national emergency).
Thanks to technological advance, the audience that hears the speech live has dramatically broadened over the years:
* In 1923, radio audiences tuned in for the first time and heard Calvin Coolidge.
* In 1947, the first television broadcast of the speech featured President Truman.
* In 2003, President George W. Bush became the first president whose address went out on a Webcast.
In 1982, President Reagan began another tradition that the authors of the Constitution never dreamed of: the introduction of a “hero” sitting in the balcony of the House chamber, usually with the First Lady. Mr. Reagan put the spotlight on Lenny Skutnik, a civil servant who had saved a passenger from an Air Florida jet that had crashed in the Potomac River just days before the speech.
Like the other traditions, that one has shown staying power because it serves the real purpose of the State of the Union address, which has been to give the president a once-a-year platform for advancing an agenda. The theater, the pomp, the effort to draw a connection to ordinary Americans has come to mean less about informing the legislative branch than about providing the leader of the executive an opportunity to lay out a vision for the country, lay out specific proposals and rally supporters — to attempt to define the political debate for the coming year.
One other tradition has been the division of the chamber between members from the two parties, a practice that originated in the mid-1800s between Whigs and Democrats. Each party tends to stand and applaud or sit dourly depending on whether the president is one of their own and what position they have taken on the issue at hand, giving the event an air of a partisan pep rally.

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