It’s Not a State of the Union, You Guys


Hey, did you hear that Trump’s State of the Union address is tonight? Well, too bad, because it is not.


Trump’s speech is not a State of the Union

President Donald Trump is speaking to a joint session of Congress, and it’s February and all that, but this is not a State of the Union address. That’s not because Trump is weird – it’s just how these annual addresses work.

First of all, a little background: the President addresses Congress because he’s supposed to. The Constitution says that 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.”

Starting with George Washington, “time to time” has meant once a year, at least usually. Some presidents wrote letters instead of giving speeches, and nobody called it the State of the Union address until Franklin D. Roosevelt added “…on the State of the Union” to the speech’s traditional name, “Annual Message to Congress.” Pretty soon everyone was just calling it the “State of the Union.”

The thing is, modern presidents have never really felt obligated to report on the state of the union after just a few months in office.

The solution: they just don’t give a State of the Union in their first year. This is Trump’s first year, so he’s not doing one, either. You can’t make him!


If it’s not a State of the Union, what is it?

Instead of giving a State of the Union address, newly elected presidents use their first speech to Congress to outline policy plans and set goals for their new administrations.

This technically started in 1981, when Ronald Reagan dropped the “State of the Union” name for his first address. Bush, Clinton, (other) Bush, and Obama all followed suit, each calling their first addresses something along the lines of “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress.” You can read all of these speeches here, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Even before Reagan, though, presidents were really phoning it in their first year. Truman’s first State of the Union was a letter, the only time he didn’t give the speech in person. FDR, Nixon, and Carter just straight up did not do the thing in their respective first years (remember, the Constitution says “from time to time,” not “once every year in February or else”).

Each of the presidents mentioned only did this for their first State of the Union-type address – so Obama’s 2013 address and Bush 43’s 2005 one (for instance) were both normal State of the Unions, despite being the first speeches after an election. Our last weird one like this was 2008 (Obama, of course), so you’d be forgiven for forgetting that we don’t have a State of the Union address every year.

All this is just to say that you should not expect Trump to tell you how the State of the Union is STRONG (or SAD, for that matter). Instead, expect big plans, goals, and promises. Then again, Trump has been keen to buck convention, so who the hell knows.

Anyway, the speech is at 9 PM ET on pretty much all the channels. Check it out, you’ll love it.

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