It may look like a sea of suits and blouses, but the seating arrangement for the annual State of the Union speech is a precise mechanism. The gathering allows the three branches of the federal government to come together to hear the president’s yearly address on the country’s progress and plans. While this brings all parties together under one roof, the lines are clearly drawn so members of each party don't have to fraternize and may also show support, or lack thereof, of the sitting president’s comments during his speech.

President Obama is seen here greeting members of Congress after a State of the Union speech.

History of the State of the Union

The tradition began in 1913 when the House of Representatives, the Senate and the entire body of Congress gathered to hear the president’s discourse in person. It comes from Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution in which 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.”

Called the Annual Message from 1790 to 1946, it became State of the Union officially in 1947 after the term began to be used more often in public and in the press to refer to the yearly speech.

Official Rules of Sitting for the State of the Union Address

The simplest explanation of the seating arrangement has Republican politicians and staff to the left of the president as he faces them from the podium in the House of Representatives chamber of the United States Capitol. Behind him sit the vice president and the Speaker of the House.

To the president’s right sits the Democrats. While there are no true rules to this seating arrangement, it tends to be how the parties fall into place. On occasion, a member will cross party lines, so to speak, and settle in a seat across the aisle. This can be a show of solidarity, a publicity stunt or a simple convenience.

For each party, the senators sit in the first two-and-a-half rows with representatives taking up the five full and two half rows behind them for a total of 10 rows of politicians facing the speaking president. Supreme Court justices have a seat front and center and to the right of the president as he faces his rapt audience and cabinet members to his left. The diplomatic corps stand to his left along the wall on the Republican side of the historic room.

The first lady and her 24 invited guests sit in a box above the fray and behind the last row of Republicans in the House of Representatives.