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Do State of the Union speeches still matter?

President Joe Biden will deliver the annual address.
Posted at 3:00 AM, Feb 06, 2023

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is set to deliver his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday.

The speech will be broadcasted, like usual, at 9 p.m. ET, followed by the Republican response by Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

But does this annual tradition of addressing Congress still have the same impact that it used to?

A TRADITION

It's the phrase that kicks off the night: "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States."

It is said traditionally by the sergeant of arms before the president walks into the House chamber.

The annual, prime-time speech doesn't actually have to happen, however.

While President George Washington delivered one in person — and so did President John Adams — President Thomas Jefferson stopped it.

Jefferson believed it felt too much like the King of England speaking to parliament. From 1801 until 1913 presidents delivered written annual reports to Congress instead in order to fulfill their constitutional obligations.

President Woodrow Wilson brought back the practice in 1913 and with the invention of the radio and television, the in-person tradition has happened in most years since then. When Biden speaks Tuesday, it will likely be his most-watched speech of the year.

Over 38 million watched last year's address, which is a chance for Biden to highlight past accomplishments, like legislation to boost computer chips. It's also a chance to express optimism for the year ahead.

Biden is expected to express that sentiment with the economy and with Ukraine's fight against Russia. It's also a chance for the president to demand bipartisanship from Congress, and he is expected to do so when it comes to the issue of the debt limit.

The United States could default for the first time this summer if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling. The State of the Union is typically the only time each year that every Republican member of Congress and every Democratic member of Congress is in the same room listening to a presidential speech.

Sometimes it can feel long. The longest ever was President Bill Clinton's in 2000. Clinton went 1 hour and 28 minutes.

The shortest address in modern times was President Richard Nixon's in 1972. Mr. Nixon spoke for just 28 minutes.

Biden's speech last year was 1 hour and 1 minute. There are critics though who say this speech isn't as influential as it used to be. Viewership has declined in recent years compared to the 1990s, and policy proposals have too.

According to data compiled by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, from 1965 to 2015, on average only 39.4% of all policy proposals contained in a State of the Union address were approved by Congress that same year.

That means, statistically, most things Biden mentions and wants Congress to accomplish won't actually happen this year.

Not every important political figure will be in the House chamber on Tuesday night. In most years since the Cold War, one member of the president's cabinet has been designated the "designated survivor."

They are kept in a secure location and away from the Capitol to ensure the continuity of government in the event of a mass casualty event.