Article 3, section 2 of the Constitution provides 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.” This role for the President raised no controversy at all in the Constitutional Convention. As Hamilton observed in Federalist No. 77, “No objection has been made to this class of authorities.”
The State of the Union message provides the President with the opportunity to exert legislative leadership by proposing a policy agenda, as well as informing Congress on the condition of the nation. Thus presidents have used the State of the Union address as an opportunity to initiate major programs and sketch a vision for the country. James Monroe articulated the Monroe Doctrine, Franklin Roosevelt advanced his Four Freedoms ideals, and Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society program. With the rise of television, the occasion of the State of the Union address has given the President a national forum through which to inform and persuade not only Congress, but the American people as well.
The form of the State of the Union has varied across time. Presidents George Washington and John Adams met personally with Congress to deliver their State of the Union messages. Thomas Jefferson broke from the practice of a personal delivery, and initiated the practice of providing his message in writing. His rationale might have reflected his distaste for any practice that resembled the monarchical model, and to Jefferson the personal appearance reminded him of the “King’s Speech.” The practice of a personal speech, moreover, occasioned a response from Congress during the Washington-Adams years. But Jefferson’s approach spared the legislature, in his words, from “the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not fully before them.” Jefferson’s practice of submitting a written message continued until the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who decided to personally deliver his recommendations to Congress. Every President since Wilson has followed suit. To bring more prominence to the occasion, President Johnson moved the time of the speech to the evening, allowing him to promote his Great Society program to a nationwide audience.