Presidents deliver State of the Union addresses every year, but their success or failure depends on the success of the policies advocated by the speaker.
President Obama delivers his annual State of the Union speech Tuesday night, but it will be months and maybe years before we know how well he did.
The success of any State of the Union — addresses that presidents have been giving for more than 200 years — depends on the success of the policies and laws that are advocated by the speaker.
“Presidents are judged much more by what they do than by what they say,” residential historian H.W. Brands said.
Coming three weeks and one day after his second inaugural address, Obama is likely to use his State of the Union to outline an ambitious agenda that includes an emphasis on jobs and the economy, debt reduction with new tax revenue, gun control, immigration and climate change.
Though the president will have the full attention of the House and Senate, as well as a national television audience, these are not the easiest speeches to give. Presidents want to cover a lot of ground, and the results can often sound like laundry lists.
As a result, many State of the Union speeches don’t make the history books. Remember President Ronald Reagan’s call for a “New Federalism” in 1982? Or, for that matter, Obama’s declaration of a “Sputnik moment” in 2011?
The truly historic States of the Union — which have been both written and oral over the years — are the ones that signal major events with lasting consequences.
That list includes the Monroe Doctrine that established U.S. primacy over the Western Hemisphere, the Four Freedoms that guided American efforts in World War II and the “war on poverty” of the 1960s.
Despite the challenges, the State of the Union has a major upside for the president: the undivided attention of Congress and the nation.
“It’s an opportunity to amass a large audience to hear your side of the case,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, co-author of Presidents Creating The Presidency: Deeds Done In Words.
When Obama’s motorcade rolls down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday night, he will be fulfilling a constitutional requirement.
In defining the duties of a president, Section 3 of Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution says: “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.”
The nation’s first two presidents — George Washington and John Adams — delivered their messages to Congress in person, in the years 1790-1800. The third president,Thomas Jefferson, had a weak speaking voice and opted to send a written message in 1801, a practice successors maintained for more than a century.
President Woodrow Wilson resumed in-person State of the Union speeches in 1913. They developed into one the most powerful weapons in the White House communications arsenal, as improved technology carried presidential messages across the nation and world.
President Calvin Coolidge delivered the first State of the Union on radio in 1923. Harry Truman made the first televised State of the Union in 1947. President Lyndon Johnson upped the ante in 1965, moving the address to prime time, where it has stayed ever since.
About 37.8 million Americans watched Obama deliver the State of the Union last year. The president’s biggest television audience — 52.4 million — came in his first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009 (which technically was not a State of the Union speech because, like all new presidents, Obama wasn’t in a position to truly judge the state of the union).
Obama gets another chance Tuesday with a speech that sets off months of political debate on such topics as debt reduction, gun control, immigration and climate.
The results over the next year will dictate how well this State of the Union address is remembered.
“It’s tempting to think that speeches make history,” Brands said. “But it’s probably the other way around — it’s history that makes the speeches.”