American presidents are required to communicate frequently with their staff, with American citizens, and with political allies and opposition. Of all the speeches the president gives while in office, the State of the Union Address, delivered annually to a joint session of Congress, is one of the most anticipated.

The Constitutional Basis

Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution mandates that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Although the Constitution doesn’t explicitly state that such information must be delivered annually in the form of a speech, as is usual today, President George Washington started the practice during his first term in office. Known formally as the Annual Message until 1934, it has been delivered in written form by many presidents.

The State of the Union Is ...

In delivering the State of the Union Address, the president is tasked with giving his assessment of the nation, with emphasis on the economy and the budget. The tone of the address can vary widely depending on the direction of the economy, the state of foreign policy and military engagement, or consideration of recent or looming crises. However, in recent addresses, there has been a trend toward optimism even in the midst of dire domestic or international situations. Every American president since Ronald Reagan has declared the state of the union to be “strong" (or some variant of the word).

Legislative Agenda

Because the president’s audience for the State of the Union Address is a joint session of Congress, the speech provides the president an excellent platform for presenting his forthcoming agenda to those directly responsible for passing it. The president explains why the policies he is proposing are necessary for the prosperity of the nation. In doing so, he has the chance to rally his legislative allies, and to win legislative opponents over to his point of view.

The Opposition Response

Since 1966, when Sen. Everett Dirksen and Rep. Gerald Ford responded to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s State of the Union Address, television networks have given a time slot to the president’s opposition party for the purpose of a response/rebuttal to the speech. Historically, these responses have either been delivered by established party leaders like Democrat Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1992, or “rising stars” like Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in 2013.