Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Fascinating Facts: State Of The Union

Tonight, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union  (SOTU) address before a live, joint session of Congress.
The address is delivered annually at the opening session of Congress in January.
No doubt you've seen and/or read about more than a few State of the Union addresses.
But how much do you really know about this speech and its history?
Here are some fascinating facts:

The US Constitution does not require the president to give an annual address to Congress. It merely says that the president should report to Congress on the condition of the nation, perhaps reviewing events and/or laying out priorities.

Such a report need not be in the form of a live address but cam come in the form of  a written annual report or in a similar fashion.

For many years presidents reported on the state of the union in written reports to Congress. This seemed to suffice.

The shortest State of the Union to Congress was presented by President George Washington and was a bit more than 1,000 words. That was the extent of it.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (an extraordinary communicator and master of the art of live radio addresses to the nation) was the first one to give the annual address the title "State of the Union." The title stuck and has been used ever since.

There is nothing that requires TV networks to give the opposing party (The "loyal opposition") the right to a response to the SOTU. But, in recent decades, this has come to be expected and the opposing party is typically given 15-20 minutes to respond via a spokesperson selected by the party. The role has been known to make  or break more than a few political careers.

In a landmark State of the Union after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson seized the opportunity to challenge Congress to enact sweeping civil rights legislation. In doing so, he uttered the words from the famous civil rights anthem when he said "we shall overcome," putting the emphasis on the word shall. It was a dramatic turning point in the quest for equal rights.

The longest State of the Union (in terms of the number of words) was delivered by President Jimmy Carter and came in at more than 33,000 words.

President Ronald Reagan was probably the most effective communicator via the State of the Union since FDR. Reagan used visual devices, once incorporating a huge stack of papers that he plopped onto the podium to dramatize the size of the federal budget and the complexity and immense proportions of the government, its regulations and its many intrusions into daily life. Reagan was also the first president to introduce special guests in the gallery to humanize issues that he wished to highlight or recognize everyday American heroes that he felt were worthy of a presidential accolade. This device has since become a staple of SOTU addresses.

You will never see the entire US Supreme Court and all the members of the Cabinet at a SOTU address. Some are always held back. This is done for security reasons.

President Bill Clinton (a man who never seems to tire of the sound of his own voice) delivered the longest State of the Union in terms of time spent at the podium. His valedictory addresses went on for one hour and 28 minutes. Though it was less verbose than Carter's address, Clinton's landmark SOTU took up more time because it was interrupted more frequently by applause

Under Barack Obama the SOTU has been used more as a potent weapon than a tool of conciliation or a bridge-builder. Increasingly, Obama has politicized the SOTU. Obama's jabs have been directed at any person (prominent or otherwise, though usually prominent) or any institution that he perceives as a roadblock to his agenda and his targets have included Republicans generally, specific GOP leaders, past, present or potential presidential candidates, certain (usually conservative)  segments of the media and even the United States Supreme Court. Because of Obama's pugnacity, some recent SOTU addresses have unfortunately taken an ugly turn.

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