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State of the Union Address: A US Political Tradition


President Bush will make his State of the Union address on Wednesday, Feb. 2 to both houses of Congress, members of the Supreme Court, other government officials and the American people. Paul Miller has a look at the history and significance of this political tradition.

U.S President George W. Bush's address to both houses of Congress continues a long-standing tradition in the relations between the executive and legislative branches of the United States government.

Under the terms of the U.S. Constitution, an American president must communicate from time to time with Congress on the State of the Union and on other issues he considers necessary and expedient. The Constitution gives no further guidance, but the presidential message now commonly called the State of the Union address has become an annual political ritual.

The tradition began with the first president, George Washington, who delivered his yearly messages in person. Delivery in person fell out of favor though, under third president, Thomas Jefferson. American University professor Allan Lichtman explains, President Jefferson felt appearing before Congress was too much like royalty. "So Jefferson in 1801 decided he would not appear personally before a congress, but rather he would deliver a written annual message and low and behold we changed the president. Since Jefferson, presidents kept delivering annual messages, but in writing rather than in person until another great political leader came on the scene, Woodrow Wilson," he said.

President Wilson went before Congress in 1913, to deliver his proposal for economic regulation. The next president to appear in person was Franklin D. Roosevelt whose annual speech was the first to be broadcast on radio.

Stephen Wayne is an expert on the presidency at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. says, "The State of the Union address has become the way in which the president sets the agenda for Congress and speaks to the American people about his accomplishments and hopes for the future. It's part of our political tradition. There is a lot of ceremony attached to it. And that usually works to the benefit of the president."

Mr. Lichtman talks about this annual message. He says, "Any shrewd politician knows if you're going to get a chance to make a major address you're not just going to speak to the members of congress, you're going to speak to all the American people. And really, presidents have used their annual messages, not simply to inform congress, but to sell their programs to the public."

Abraham Lincoln, in fact, used his annual message in 1862 to launch his first attack on slavery, saying that without slavery there would have been no U.S. Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt's economic bill of rights was announced in one of his addresses. Harry Truman went before Congress to outline the program he called, The Fair Deal. And Lyndon Johnson, in the 1960s, proposed new civil rights laws and efforts to eradicate poverty. "And this administration, today, here, and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America," he said.

President Bush is expected to reveal ambitious programs on domestic and foreign policy issues - to spend the political capital he says he earned in this election. Whatever President Bush proposes, he can expect a warm reception from his own Republican party and less enthusiasm from members of the Democratic Party opposition.