What Is the State of the Union Address, and Why Does Congress Host It? (with Matt Glassman)

By Kevin R. Kosar January 8, 2024

The topic of this episode is, what is the State of the Union Address, and why does Congress host it?

Once per year, the President of the United States comes to the U.S. Capitol to deliver a speech known as the State of the Union Address. Usually this happens in late January or early February, but it has occurred as late as March 1.

Both members of the House of Representatives and Senators assemble for this speech, along with nearly all members of the president’s cabinet. Justices of the Supreme Court also are there, as are some other individuals. In modern times it has become quite a spectacle—with television cameras beaming the event to millions of homes.

To discuss this grand affair, I have with me Matt Glassman. He is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute, where he studies Congress. Prior to joining the Institute, Matt worked with me at the Congressional  Research Service for ten years. There he wrote about congressional operations, separation of powers, appropriations, judicial administration, agency design, and congressional history.

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our republic. It’s a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be, and that is why we are here to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar, and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C.

Matt, welcome to the podcast.

Matt Glassman:

Thanks for having me.

Kevin Kosar:

Let’s start with the why. Why does Congress host a state of the union address? Does the U.S. Constitution require it?

Matt Glassman:

The Constitution doesn’t require, per se, the State of the Union Address as we know it now, but Article 2, Section 3 does sort of contemplate the idea of a State of the Union message. It says 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.”

So this idea of the president reporting back to Congress on what’s going on in the administration and what he would like to see happen in the legislature is contemplated in the Constitution. So, yes, it is there. It’s not required to happen every year; it says from time to time. That’s been interpreted as annually, but we don’t have a State of the Union message every year.

Sometimes presidents don’t do it in their last year in office. Sometimes presidents don’t do it right after they’re inaugurated—they just deliver a different message to Congress. But the idea is rooted in the Constitution and in Anglo-American tradition. It was very traditional for the monarchy to go speak to Parliament as it opened in English history as well.

Kevin Kosar:

So it’s discretionary, which means Congress could—if it chooses—refuse to hold a State of the Union address. One could imagine— in these high partisanship times—a House with a Democratic majority that might have refused to allow President Trump to appear or a Republican majority of the House could refuse President Biden’s wish to come and speak.

And for president to actually show up for a State of the Union, there’s got to be an actual resolution passed, right?

Matt Glassman:

Yes, in theory. Certainly, for the president to come stand on the House floor and talk, he is going to need either the rules of the House and Senate or a specific resolution from the House and Senate to approve that. The President of the United States does not have any right to be in the House of Representatives or in the Senate giving a speech under the House rules. In the Senate rules, the president currently has floor privileges to the chamber, but it is a function of the rules. There is nothing in the Constitution that would allow the president to come give this message in person.

So first, they work out behind the scenes when the president has a date available that works for everybody. Then the Speaker of the House formally sends a letter to the president inviting him to come over. Then a concurrent resolution is passed by the two chambers setting up the joint session where they’ll hear the president’s address.

It’s absolutely correct that, that you could imagine animosity between Congress and the president getting so high that there wasn’t a State of the Union as we know it. The president could still send over a letter—that was traditionally how it was done for 19th century. During the Trump administration, people saw the possibility of Nancy Pelosi saying, “You’re not coming over. Send a letter and tell us what you think, but we’re not giving you a stage in our chamber to do it.”

Now, of course that didn’t happen and there’s lots of reasons both politically and normatively that you don’t want that sort of partisan animosity to upend the State of the Union, but it’s totally plausible and you could imagine a situation where it happened.

Kevin Kosar:

And I guess with the chambers being presently divided—Democratic control in the Senate, Republican control in the House—if both chambers don’t agree, then it doesn’t happen. The president doesn’t get to come over, right?

Matt Glassman:

Doesn’t get to come over to speak at a joint session that the current resolutions and practice contemplate. But imagine—for instance—that the House Republicans decided for whatever reason that they didn’t want Biden to come over for a State of the Union message this year. I think it’s totally plausible that Biden might come over to the Senate and deliver his State of the Union address there. Again, that could be filibustered too, in theory—you can imagine situations. But just because you can’t get a joint session going in Congress doesn’t mean the president can’t come over and give an address in one of the chambers. All sorts of combinations are possible.

And this is a level of partisan animosity that even Trump versus the House Democrats didn’t create, so it would have to be something sort of even more extraordinary than anything we’ve seen over the last decade in order to break this tradition.

Now, could you imagine a president of the United States deciding he was done with these in person things, and just sending a letter instead and having someone in his party read it on the floor the way they did in the 19th century? That’s also plausible. That would require less partisan animosity. It would just require a president who saw things differently.

I don’t think that’s likely either. I think most of the time the president believes the state of the Union address is a politically advantageous moment for him and the administration if they do it in person. The letter would sort of downplay it a lot, so I don’t see that happening either anytime soon.

Kevin Kosar:

I suppose one could imagine this trend line where thanks to technological advancements over the last 120 years, it’s been easier and easier for a president to “go public.” You could have a president who just decides to sit in the White House, do a speech to the nation that way, and basically call up the State of the Union and send over a piece of paper and be like, “Okay, I’m just not putting up with you people.”

Matt Glassman:

Yeah, I think that’s totally plausible. I think the trappings of the State of the Union address give it a little more sort of public influence—a little more. Sometimes in Washington, you get a sense that everybody is watching something like this when in reality, very few people are watching—the Monday Night Football game will vastly outdo the Union address in ratings. But I do think the State of the Union address will get a higher audience than a typical presidential address from the Oval Office or from wherever, so the president see that as somewhat advantageous to getting their message out.

But you can imagine lots of different ways to deal with the State of the Union address, where the climate in the country around a particular issue makes a president decide to completely upend what we expect from a State of the Union Address and just give an address on one topic. We’ve seen that on occasion in presidential addresses during moments of crisis. Buchanan’s address in December of 1860 at the opening of Congress was almost entirely about the slave crisis. Lincoln’s First Inaugural was almost entirely about secession. If the moment was more of a crisis situation, you can imagine presidents giving a very different type of address.

Kevin Kosar:

Yeah. So per the Constitution, requiring the executive to report to Congress had two overt purposes. First, getting information from him since the president oversees agencies and has access to their data. It could be useful if he could share this information with the legislature because there is a principal-agent relationship between the legislature and the president. But it’s also an opportunity for him to suggest policies for Congress to consider.

What about today? Does the speech have purposes beyond that today?

Matt Glassman:

One thing to know is that those two original purposes reflect the old congressional calendar. One thing to keep in mind was that a typical annual address of the president—which is what they called the State of the Union before it got its modern nomenclature—typically happened in December right after Congress met.

Under the old calendar, Congress had often been out of session since the previous March—or if it was the second session, they had been out of session typically since around June. So there really was a lot for the president to say. The administration had been the government in total for a period of six or even nine months, in some cases, when these annual addresses happened.

So there was literally a lot to catch people up on. There was sort of news you could break about what was going on. I think that is a lot less true now with Congress in session year-round and oversight being an ongoing process. I do not think there’s a whole lot of surprises in the president’s annual address about the actual state of the union.

In the same way, I think communicating policies for Congress to consider also has a little less oomph than it did in the mid-19th century, simply because—again—Congress is around full time and the president and his administration are proposing policies all the time. So those two sort of natural purposes that the Constitution contemplates probably have shrunk a little bit in their value.

But of course there are other things that the State of the Union address provides. One is an opportunity for the president to do a lot of interest and agency group politicking: to come up with a distributive list of goodies that he can mention to promote or give returns back to different groups in his coalition—be it his partisan political coalition or his administrative coalition of different agencies that he needs to keep happy.

I think this leads to the most important thing about the State of the Union address is that it is what political scientists might call a “focusing event.” The administration has a deadline by which they have got to decide what they believe about certain issues. That is a good thing for the administration. A lot of times in the executive branch, you can sit around debating stuff with no end, but a focusing event forces the agencies to come up with their policies. It forces the White House to choose what their policies are—not only as a priority matter of what their agenda is, but actually what the policies are.

If President Biden comes up to Congress for a State of the Union address in two months and talks about his border policy, he is going to have to have a border policy. That is a good thing—it forces the administration to figure out what its policy is. To that point, it is actually an important deadline on the congressional-executive calendar. Note that it nowadays happens, roughly right before sort of the opening of a budget season. The president’s budget usually comes out shortly after the State of the Union, so you can see the address as tied to the administration’s priorities and what it wants to put in its budget.

Kevin Kosar:

And these days—as the head of whichever party he is within—the president is setting the course for the party and reframing the brand in the public’s eye to some degree, perhaps in anticipation of the next election. So there is a bit of that PR exercise going on as well.

As I mentioned in my introduction, it is a remarkable event to have members of all three branches of government piling into the same building. There is a whole bunch of other folks too, like members of the diplomatic corps. That prompts a gruesome thing to contemplate—but we got to because terrorism is a fact of modern life. Isn’t it a big risk to the continuity of government to have president, vice president, the whole Supreme Court, and so much of the legislative branch all together in this one place? And have they done any thinking about how to mitigate this risk, so we don’t end up with a country that has no functioning government?

Matt Glassman:

I think that is obviously a concern. It is quite famous that there is sort of the designated survivor—someone in the President’s Cabinet who doesn’t go to the State of the Union address, who stays away from the Capitol and indeed stays away from Washington during the Address.

That was put in place in a Cold War sense where all of a sudden there were ballistic missiles that could blow up the entire city at once to which we had no defense. In some ways, it is more symbolic than useful. It is not clear to me that like the Secretary of Labor would have a whole lot of political authority in the wake of that sort of awful tragedy.

But I do think it is something worth contemplating. I do not think the answer is sort of distribute the people and have the state of the State of the Union address remotely for various people. I think it is important the government comes together, but it does highlight sort of the security concerns. The legislature is a decentralized system to begin with, which is why we do not see a lot of assassinations of legislators—it does not solve you a lot politically. So the time that members of Congress and Congress itself is in danger is when they are all together.

That is why the security on the floor of the House and Senate is what it is. It is why the security following Congress around when it sort of travels in mass. But obviously bringing the administration into sort of ups the ante to it. There is probably not a regularly scheduled event in the United States that has a higher security level than the State of the Union address. If you are ever in downtown Washington on the night of State of the Union, you cannot get within a block of the Capitol—the perimeter really is the biggest perimeter you can imagine.

That does not mitigate all threats, but I do think that there’s enough value in the State of the Union Address—and enough value in bringing the whole government together at least once a year—that whatever risks there are that can’t be mitigated by the security measures in place just have to be accepted because I think to not allow the government to come together in a whole would probably lose some of the symbolic value of the State of the Union Address.

Kevin Kosar:

Alright, that elides nicely into criticisms of the modern State of the Union Address. I, for one, have groused that it confuses the American public into thinking that the president has way more power than he actually has, and it contributes to this sort of misunderstanding of our system—that the president could just get up there and wave magic wands and make policy happen as opposed to it having to be worked through the legislature in most instances.

Some years ago you wrote a blog post about the State of the Union and here’s one thing you wrote in it:

“As many very smart people will undoubtedly tell you today, the State of the Union address doesn’t really matter much. Brendan Nyhan reminded us last year that the instant polling is worthless, that the President doesn’t actually often get an approval bounce, and that unlike a debate there’s no chance of an unscripted moment. John Sides reminded us that any policy or agenda effects from the speech are small at best. And Ezra Klein notes today that the one dimension on which the address may have a strong impact—laying out the President’s policy agenda—is basically a non-issue in an election year with a divided Congress.”

Criticisms—you note them, and I have made mine. Yet you still think it is important. Why is the State of the Union address—in his current modern format—important and worth doing?

Matt Glassman:

I think it is important because it is one of the core rituals of democracy we have in the United States. And I think symbolically it gets it right.

I completely agree that there is a misaligned sense that the president is the legislator-in-chief of the United States, and that this is reinforced all the time. It is certainly reinforced by presidential candidates running around the country telling you what is going to happen under their tax plan, under their budget proposal. It sounds like the president can just make laws, but the president of the United States cannot make laws as much as he can walk on water.

But the State of the Union Address is different—it is symbolically sort of correct. It gets the constitutional structure of American government right. The best way to think about the American government is as sort of a corporate board. The president is the CEO running the company—which is the executive branch—and Congress is the board elected by the shareholders, who are the people.

The State of the Union Address gets that right. The president—the CEO—comes over to the board and he has to beg them to give him authority to do stuff. You hear that in the State of the Union Address. The President asks Congress to act. He yells at them for not acting. But you know what? Congress has to act. And it is never more apparent than the State of the Union that the President cannot act on his own, that he needs the Congress to do it. And I think that is the essence of our Republic—that the House of Representatives and the Senate are fundamentally in charge, and the president is administering the law that they have passed.

I think the other important thing about the State of the Union Address is that it does bring the government together all at once. It is the only time on the calendar outside of electoral events where the government does all come together. That is important for people to see. It is important for people to see the Supreme Court justices is sitting there. It is important for people to see the administration sitting in the House of Representatives. The other sort of event that brings the entire government together in the United States is the quadrennial inauguration. The inauguration is exactly sort of the opposite of the core constitutional structure of our government. The inauguration is sort of a celebration of the executive branch, and that is not the fundamental structure of our constitution. The State of the Union Address is the fundamental structure of the Constitution, and I think it is good for people to see it.

I think the rituals that go on in the State of the Union Address—everyone in the room standing up and clapping when the president walks down the aisle, and everybody in the room standing up and clapping again when he’s introduced—are beneficial for democracy.

They have a lot of this in England. They have the famous slamming of the door in Parliament on the monarch’s people. In the United States, we don’t have a ton of these ritualistic traditions surrounding the actual government itself. Our government is younger than the English government. It came out post-Enlightenment when these things were brushed off a little bit intellectually. But the State of the Union Address in its current form does do a nice job of reinforcing some of the core values of the Constitution. I think that makes it worthwhile, even if—as everyone knows—it has become a non-event in the way that people normally think about political events influencing political outcomes—it really doesn’t do that.

Kevin Kosar:

What do you think about the modern practice of the party in opposition to the president giving a televised response? You for it? Against it?

Matt Glassman:

I do not have a strong opinion about it. I think as a political endeavor gets often a fool’s errand. It is very difficult to stand in an empty room on a podium and compete with the president standing on the dais in the House of Representatives speaking to the entire government. I think it is difficult and it is often handed to some up-and-coming entrepreneur in the party who would like to try and see if this time they can make it work, but often they can’t.

It is probably is rooted in a mid-20th century belief in fairness for airtime on television for the parties, but that is neither here nor there. If the president of the United States is giving a constitutionally suggested speech, I do not think there’s any sort of fairness issue about that being televised by the networks.

As a general practice. I do not think it is a bad thing for opposition leaders—not simply the other party, but anyone opposed to what he administration is doing—to be critiquing the administration’s position on anything. The current State of the Union address is obviously a partisan activity in a lot of ways, but there has been plenty of times in American history where the president might get up and say something to the State of the Union address that a lot of his party disagrees with. This could be anything from a mid-20th century Democrat talking about civil rights to perhaps a modern Republican President like Bush talking about immigration. It is not necessarily the case that everyone is in lockstep behind the party.

I think more voices coming out of the State of the Union address from leaders is a good thing. But the actual opposition rebuttal response that is now a fixture of the televised version of this is in some ways just a waste of time for the parties.

Kevin Kosar:

Certainly, we can think of a variety of instances in recent years where it just did not go as well as the opposition party had intended.

We have exhausted our time. Thank you, Matt Glassman, for helping listeners understand what the State of the Union Address is and why Congress hosts it.

Matt Glassman:

Thanks for having me.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Jaehun Lee and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging at @AEI. Once again, thank you for listening and have a great day.


Stay in the know about our news and events.