The “State of the Union” Isn’t what It Used to Be (VIDEO)
by Vanessa Beasley, Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs
UNIFYING THEME: Polarization: Its Past, Present and Future
SUMMARY: The Constitution requires a president to deliver an annual message to Congress, but it does not impose any specifications. As the history of this paramount speech has evolved over 200 years, the presidents’ words matter, but increasingly theatrics and Congress’ response influence the American people’s perception of leadership. Unlike the oath of office, which has remained unaltered since its drafting by the founders, the style, substance and schedule of this annual tradition continues to evolve. As Biden prepares to address Congress, visual cues from attendees may provide more clues than the speech’s text about the trajectory of the Biden Administration’s relationship with Congress.
RELATED NEWS: Vanessa Beasley on Biden’s first 100 days, as seen in:
- USA Today: With 100 days behind him, Biden’s challenges mount and expectations rise as COVID-19 concerns ease (May 1, 2021)
- Newsweek: Joe Biden’s first 100 days: What did he promise and what did he deliver? (April 29, 2021)
- C-SPAN: Preview of President Biden’s Address to Congress (April 28, 2021) (VIDEO)
If an inaugural address is a bit like a sermon, then a president’s annual message to Congress is more like a syllabus. As with the first couple classes of the term, a brief review of previous material—or in the case of President Biden’s first annual message scheduled for April 28, 2021, a listing of his accomplishments during the first 100-odd days of his administration—is expected.
Modern tradition holds that a president’s first address to joint session of Congress is not “officially categorized as a ‘State of the Union Message,’” as it usually follows close on the heels of a new president’s inaugural address. Regardless of its official title, this annual speech signals a president’s strategy for the remainder of the year and maps out specific tasks an administration expects to undertake to advance that strategy. This address tends to be longer and more detail-oriented, and it often lacks the soaring rhetoric typical of inaugural orations. Like a syllabus features assignments, page numbers and due dates, this speech typically lists an administration’s public policy agenda in sometimes turgid granularity.
Also like a syllabus (to the great chagrin of many professors), no one thinks most people will read or listen to every word of a president’s annual message. Instead, listeners are expected to look up from their phones selectively, focusing on those lines or specific proposals devoted to their “issue.”
I have argued before that presidents’ words matter because they have implications for the definitions of, and perhaps people’s aspirations for, what it means to be an American. I suggested that we can see these implications most clearly in inaugural addresses because these speeches serve a ritualistic function; they are quasi-religious invocations to transcendence and national unity, particularly after contentious elections. While a president’s annual message bears similar ritualistic trappings, it supplies the policy prose to the inaugural address’ poetry.
While a president’s annual message bears similar ritualistic trappings, it supplies the policy prose to the inaugural address’ poetry.
The syllabus metaphor, thus, is helpful to understanding this speech’s function. Like the document outlining a semester’s plan and requirements, and whether or not President Biden uses the phrase “state of the union” in his remarks, this month’s address has implications for author and audience outside of the text itself. Just as it is the instructor’s job to write the syllabus, it is the president’s to give an annual address to Congress. This duty is mandated by the Constitution as one of the procedural requirements of the office, with a frequency recommended as “from time to time.”[i] And just as a syllabus is designed for a particular class, this speech is ostensibly designed for the Congressional audience.
Modern media technology, however, has expanded the audience beyond its Constitutional requirements, allowing a president to speak simultaneously to legislators with the authority to approve or reject an administration’s agenda and to American people with the power to vote those legislators out of office. With this change in audience has come an expansion of the speech’s function. Before Woodrow Wilson decided to deliver his 1913 State of the Union to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Dec. 2, 1913,[ii] the great majority of presidents chose not to deliver this message as a speech at all. Instead, the “annual message” was customarily sent to Congress in written form and read by a clerk.[iii] To read some of these today is to understand why this text is often still referred to as a “laundry list” of public policy items. For example, in his “annual message” to Congress in 1893, President Grover Cleveland called for very specific changes to the criminal justice system, stating:
“I also heartily join the Attorney-General in recommending legislation fixing degrees of the crime of murder within Federal jurisdiction, as has been done in many of the States; authorizing writs of error on behalf of the Government in cases where final judgment is rendered against the sufficiency of an indictment or against the Government upon any other question arising before actual trial; limiting the right of review in cases of felony punishable only by fine and imprisonment to the circuit court of appeals, and making speedy provision for the construction of such prisons and reformatories as may be necessary for the confinement of United States convicts.”[iv]
If you cannot imagine a president reading similar sentences from a teleprompter, you can thank the mass media.
By 1923, the now in-person speech was broadcast to the nation for the first time on radio (Coolidge, 1923), followed by its appearance on television (Truman, 1947) and then its current placement in prime-time hours on television (Johnson, 1965, with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s last SOTU).[v]
This expanded audience gradually influenced the text of standard addresses, and television required injecting an element of theatrics to keep folks tuned in. Presidents and their speechwriters quickly realized their “laundry list” tactic of outlining public policy goals would have to change: The traditional content would be too boring, the traditional delivery too staid. In this regard, President Ronald Reagan’s strategy for State of the Union speeches marked a turning point. His use of this occasion would change the way his successors would approach this annual “command performance” in their presidency. Through storytelling and special guests, with the first mechanism designed to change the prose and the second to change the setting (i.e., shifting the audience’s gaze from the podium to the balcony), every president since Reagan has enlivened his remarks with stagecraft aimed at engaging those watching at home.
While Reagan devoted the bulk of his 1982 State of the Union address to his domestic economic agenda, which he touted as a cure for the nation’s economic doldrums, his speech was designed to end on a more soaring note. He linked the heroic actions (which had been replayed countless times during the two weeks prior to his speech) of a single government employee, a man who dove into the icy waters of the Potomac River to save plane crash victims, with those of the founding patriots who took up arms at Lexington and Concord.
Yes, we have our problems . . . We speak with pride and admiration of that little band of Americans who overcame insuperable odds to set this nation on course 200 years ago. But our glory didn’t end with them. Americans ever since have emulated their deeds.
We don’t have to turn to our history books for heroes. They’re all around us . . .
Just 2 weeks ago, in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest—the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. And we saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.[vi]
As the president spoke, the cameras panned to the visitors’ gallery where Skutnik was seated next to the First Lady, and the members of Congress rose to their feet to give him a sustained standing ovation. By acknowledging Skutnik’s heroism, Reagan celebrated the Congressional Budget Office employee’s extraordinary action while deploying it for political advantage.[vii]
In 2014, a president from the opposing party would use the same tactic of rhetoric for similar political gain. After Obamacare passed in 2010, President Barack Obama still faced the tough tasks of defending his hallmark health care legislation and trying to explain the nuances of its complicated regulatory framework. Rather than diving deep into policy particulars in his 2014 annual message, he told the story of Amanda Shelley, who obtained health insurance just days before she required life-saving emergency surgery. As he spoke, the camera cut to the gallery, where Shelley was seated directly behind Michelle Obama.[viii] [ix]
President Donald Trump would also use this tactic, a decision that is unsurprising given his predecessors’ habitual use as well his own familiarity with what made for good television. In January 2020, several guests sitting with First Lady Melania Trump were selected to highlight his policies, at risk as they were during the forthcoming election, on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to border security. But one of the guests in particular was arguably chosen for a “made for TV” moment.[x] Trump singled out conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh before surprising him with the announcement that he would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Mrs. Trump then placed around his neck as the cameras rolled.[xi] The Minutemen of Lexington and Concord—and Lenny Skutnik—now had a new compatriot, symbolically at least: one who had waged ideological war on the airwaves.
As the address itself has become more theatrical, members of Congress have also gotten in on the performance. Whether standing and applauding raucously or sitting and staring in stony silence, those comprising the constitutionally intended audience physically signal support or rejection of a president’s policy prescriptions. The joint session of Congress convened for the annual address at times almost seems as lively as the British House of Commons, but some unwritten rules still seem to apply. For example, Rep. Joe Wilson (R, S.C.) was roundly condemned for shouting “you lie” during Obama’s 2009 address; he subsequently apologized.[xii] While it appears that shouting directly at the president while he is behind the rostrum is unacceptable, quieter displays of opposition may be here to stay if last year’s showing of “women in white” is any indication.[xiii]
In addition to participating in customary partisan shenanigans, President Joe Biden and members of Congress from both political parties have a unique task this year. Through the annual and ritualistic trappings, from the introduction of the president by the House Sergeant at Arms to the applause (and the withholding of it by some), they will reclaim the U.S. Capitol—and especially the House Chamber. For many Americans, the last sustained image of the U.S. Capitol is a shirtless man bedecked in furs and horns brandishing the American flag like a spear. Since a president last presented an “annual message,” Americans have suffered through a pandemic, felt its debilitating societal and economic costs, survived a fraught election season, heard incendiary claims of electoral fraud, and watched a small legion of misguided insurrectionists despoil the seat of the country’s democracy.
Like the rest of American society, this annual tradition is not immune to the coronavirus. Masks may lessen the volume and visual intensity of attendees’ theatrics, and there may be video cutaways to honored guests watching the speech in a remote location. However, by staying within the roughly sketched parameters of modern State of the Union comportment—including respectful, if vociferous, disagreement—the president and members of Congress can take an important step toward demonstrating their shared commitment to America’s democratic institutions.
After the last 12 months or so, reading a syllabus that tells us what will come next might not seem quite so bad.
- Allison M. Prasch and Julia Scatliff O’Grady, “Saluting the ‘Skutnik’: Special Guests, the First Lady’s Box, and the Generic Evolution of the State of the Union Address,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 20, vol. no. 4 (2017): 571-604.
- Weiland, Noah, et al. “How Lenny Skutnik, Reagan’s SOTU Hero, Soured on Obama’s America.” POLITICO Magazine, 12 Jan. 2016, /.
- Beasley, Vanessa, “Words Matter: What an inaugural Address means now,” The Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy, Jan. 2021.
- Vanderbilt News: “Vanderbilt faculty expertise sought by global media on unity and new presidential administration,” Jan. 22, 2021.
Vanessa Beasley, a Vanderbilt University alumna and expert on the history of U.S. political rhetoric, is vice provost for academic affairs, dean of residential faculty and an associate professor of communication studies. She oversees Vanderbilt’s growing Residential College System as well as the campus units that offer experiential learning inside and outside of the classroom.
Following stints on the faculty of Texas A&M University, Southern Methodist University and the University of Georgia, she returned to Vanderbilt in 2007 as a faculty member in the Department of Communication Studies. Active in the Vanderbilt community, she has served as chair of the Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault, director of the Program for Career Development for faculty in the College of Arts and Science, and as a Jacque Voegeli Fellow of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities.
Beasley’s areas of academic expertise include the rhetoric of American presidents, political rhetoric on immigration, and media and politics. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles, book chapters and other publications, and is the author of two books, Who Belongs in America? Presidents, Rhetoric, and Immigration and You, the People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric, 1885-2000. She was recently named president-elect of the Rhetoric Society of America, scheduled to begin her term in July 2022.
Beasley attended Vanderbilt as an undergraduate and earned a bachelor of arts in speech communication and theatre arts. She also holds a Ph.D. in speech communication from the University of Texas at Austin.
 Congressional Research Service. History, Evolution, and Practices of the President’s State of the Union Message, by Maria Kreiser and Michael Greene, R4470 (2021), 1.
[i] “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.” U.S. Const. art II, § 3.
[iii] History, Evolution, and Practices of the President’s State of the Union Address: Frequently Asked Questions.” Congressional Research Service. 29 Jan. 2020. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44770.pdf
[iv] “Presidential Speeches: Grover Cleveland Presidency, December 4, 1893: First Annual Message (Second Term).” UVA Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/december-4-1893-first-annual-message-second-term
[v] “History, Evolution, and Practices of the President’s State of the Union Address: Frequently Asked Questions.” Congressional Research Service. 29 Jan. 2020. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44770.pdf
[vi] “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress, 26 Jan. 1982.” Reagan Library. https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/address-joint-session-congress-reporting-state-union
[vii] Allison M. Prasch and Julia Scatliff O’Grady, “Saluting the ‘Skutnik’: Special Guests, the First Lady’s Box, and the Generic Evolution of the State of the Union Address,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 20, no. 4 (2017): 571-604.
[viii] ix Weiland, Noah, et al. “How Lenny Skutnik, Reagan’s SOTU Hero, Soured on Obama’s America.” POLITICO Magazine, 12 Jan. 2016, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/lenny-skutnik-sotu-interview-213522/.
/; “SOTU-OBAMA-AMANDA-SHELLEY-HEALTH INSURANCE. YouTube. Uploaded by CNN. 31 March 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4brtRHS3jA and “Barack Obama 44th President of the United States Address Before Joint Session of Congress, January 28, 2014, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-before-joint-session-the-congress-the-state-the-union-21
[x] Vigdor, Neil. “Here Are the Guests for the State of the Union.” New York Times. 4 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/us/politics/state-of-the-union-guests.html
[xii] Bohatch, Emily. 2020. “SC’s Wilson fires back after Obama says he wanted to smack him for ‘You Lie’ outburst. Slate, Slate, 17 Nov. 2020. https://www.thestate.com/news/politics-government/article247233814.html.
[xiii] Lang, Cady. “State of the Union: Here’s Why Women Are Wearing White.” Time. 5 Feb. 2020, time.com/5777514/women-wearing-white-state-of-the-union/.