What to watch during the 2023 State of the Union Address


The State of the Union address, one of the greatest annual rituals in American politics, comes at a pivotal moment in President Biden’s first term. The Commander-in-Chief will present his accomplishments from the previous year and his vision for the country’s future – in front of what is now a divided Congress.

The State of the Union as We Know It is a high-energy joint address to Congress at the invitation of the Speaker of the House, who is presiding over the event alongside the Vice President. But throughout history, presidents have fulfilled their constitutional duty to update Congress in different ways. The practice has evolved over time into a successful act of political theater – a far cry from the way it was once delivered, as a memo sent to lawmakers.

Here are the main features of the modern State of the Union, how they came about, and what to expect on Tuesday night:

The entire ceremony centers around the President’s address to a joint session of Congress. But the Constitution does not actually require any of the trappings we usually associate with this event: on the contrary, Section 3 of Article II simply says that the President “shall from time to time give to Congress information respecting the state of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as it deems necessary and expedient.

The nation’s first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both gave “annual message” speeches while in office, although Washington gave his first speech in New York City rather than Washington. Thomas Jefferson chose to fulfill his constitutional duty by sending a written letter to Congress, which some historians believe he did because he was a shy speaker. Each of his successors followed suit until Woodrow Wilson brought back speeches in person in a move that stunned Washington in 1913.

The time, place and even the name of the speech also depends on the president. Franklin D. Roosevelt popularized by calling the speech a “state of the union,” Lyndon B. Johnson chose to stage the event during the evening for a national prime-time audience, and Ronald Reagan trivialized the fact that the President distinguishes his first address to Congress from a State of the Union address, to heighten the importance of the latter. Biden, for example, called his first speech on Capitol Hill “a speech before a joint session of Congress.”

It would be an understatement to say that the State of the Union attracts a powerful cross-section of Washington. All members of the House and Senate, the nine justices of the Supreme Court, the President’s cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and more than 100 ambassadors to the United States are invited to attend. (It’s no wonder that a Cabinet member is dubbed a “designated survivor” each year to take time off from speech elsewhere in case disaster befalls the rest of the country’s leadership.)

The reactions of the participants are now part of the political pageantry. According to White House transcripts from the past two decades, audience applause has steadily increased to more than 100 per address for Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Biden. It has become common for the political press to track which lines draw applause, which party MPs participate and how long the applause lasts.

On the other hand, backlash from members of the public has also become a regular feature of these speeches, such as when Democrats protested Trump’s comments touting his immigration policies in 2018 and Rep. Joe Wilson (RS .C.) shouted “You’re lying!” to Obama during Obama’s first speech to Congress. Biden’s 2022 speech drew heckling from Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) when he spoke about border security and veterans.

The Speaker and Speaker of the House may invite up to 24 people each to sit with the Speaker’s Spouse and in the Speaker’s Gallery respectively. Each member of Congress may also invite one guest.

Reagan started the tradition of greeting guests during the speech when he invited Lenny Skutnik, a federal employee who rescued a woman from the freezing waters of the Potomac after Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the river in January 1982 shortly after takeoff. During his remarks, the president recognized Skutnik as an example of the “countless silent heroes of everyday American life.”

Since then, each president has invited guests — including veterans, grieving families reeling from tragedy, and individuals, such as Skutnik, who performed extraordinary deeds in times of crisis — to illustrate points of concern. his speech. Members of Congress often do the same.

While these guests are often local heroes, some this year will be nationally known: The Congressional Black Caucus invited the parents of Tire Nichols, the black man who died after being brutally beaten by police officers in Memphis last month. last. Also guest: Brandon Tsay, who disarmed the attacker in a shooting that left 11 dead in Monterey Park, Calif., also last month.

As the State of the Union has evolved from a constitutional race to a televised political manifesto, the event has official lines from across the political spectrum. Responses to the President’s speech are now being given by political parties and various congressional caucuses and in multiple languages.

While giving the answer is a high-profile honor, the gig can be perilous for any rising political star, who risks making blunders that haunt their public image for years. Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D)’s 1985 scripted response to Reagan was one step on his way to the White House, but also made clear the pitfalls of a scripted response. No party has done the same since. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was turned into a meme almost instantly for reaching for a glass of water while giving his answer.

This year, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders will give the Republican response to Biden’s remarks. The Progressive Working Families Party tapped freshman Rep. Delia C. Ramirez (D-Ill.) to offer its answer this year.

Recent presidents have addressed their messages not only to the various politicians present in the room, but also to the whole nation; the speech regularly attracts tens of millions of viewers on prime time television.

The speech will air on major cable broadcast and news channels, including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, PBS and Fox News. The Washington Post will host a live broadcast of the event with anchored coverage and commentary. The White House will also broadcast the event on its website.

Social media and other forms of online sharing ensured that highlights of the event could circulate long after the President made his presentation live and in person. Scenes such as Trump’s announcement of presidential awards and the sarcastic applause of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the tearing of the transcript of his speech are recent examples of the state of the Union having a political and cultural afterlife long after the speech has passed.


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