Article II, section 3 of the United States constitution lays is out clearly: “Every year the president shall give a really big speech the whole country will watch, half of them eagerly, half of them angrily.” Well, not exactly. The actual constitutional impetus for our current fanfare-inducing national tradition is pretty basic: “[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...” One cool way of thinking about it is that because of the word “recommend” this clause in the constitution further codifies the fact that the president is no king – he or she recommends things to congress, and even that is secondary to merely informing the people's representation on the state of the union.
We can thank George Washington for nailing down the parameters a bit. He set the tradition of giving this “State of the Union” to Congress on a yearly basis. Wilson reestablished the tradition of delivering the address to Congress in person after years of it being simply delivered to Congress (it used to be a lengthy written report that was delivered to the chambers and read by a page). Depending on how much you like to count ovations vs. standing ovations, we can thank FDR for establishing the relatively modern tradition of State of the Union speeches addressing both the Congress and citizens of the United States in his speech (among many other important topics covered in FDR's first State of the Union, he addressed the benefits of adopting the 21st amendment – repealing prohibition. It's not clear if this began the time honored tradition of State of the Union drinking games).
Regardless of your feelings for the current President, SOTU addresses are worth paying attention to (you can read it today at votesmart.org if you missed it on Tuesday night). They are generally used to set the president's legislative agenda, so you know what to keep an eye out for in the coming congressional sessions. This is why we use SOTU and various response speeches to determine what questions we'll ask candidates on our Political Courage Test. The State of the Union has also traditionally been a time for the president to address foreign policy concerns, which could be especially interesting considering North Korea's recent nuclear test. Check votesmart.org today for the full transcript of the speech and all of the responses from other politicians that followed.
Ben Raker is currently the project manager for Project Vote Smart's data categorization and coding project, which is laying the groundwork for more data visualizations and an easier user experience on the site. If you have questions about this project or anything we do here, please call 1-800-VOTE-SMART or email email@example.com.