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Too Embarrassed to Ask: State of the Union

1. What is the purpose of the State of the Union address?

This now annual event before a joint session of Congress is an opportunity for the President to address what he sees as his achievements in previous years, share his plans for the coming year and rally support for his agenda.

2. How did it get started?

A: The Constitution requires that the President “from time to time give the Congress Information on the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Article II, Section 3, Clause 1. The Constitution does not dictate the frequency of delivery, nor how Congress should be given this information. George Washington delivered the first annual address in person on Jan. 8, 1790, but Thomas Jefferson halted this practice in 1801, as he believed it too closely mirrored the British monarch’s speech from the throne. Instead Jefferson sent written letters to Congress, and the practice of delivering the message in person didn’t return until Woodrow Wilson in 1913. The first time Americans could see the presidential address from their television sets was in 1947, when Harry Truman delivered it. The annual message was historically delivered during the day, but in 1965 Lyndon Johnson turned it into an evening event so more people could hear the president speak.

3: When did the opposition response begin?

A: The first official opposition response to a president’s State of the Union Address was given in 1966, when Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-MI) offered a televised critique of President Lyndon Johnson’s address. Three of the public officials who delivered the speech would later go on to become president – Gerald Ford in 1966, 1967 and 1968, George H.W. Bush in 1968, and Bill Clinton in 1985.

4. Who gets to attend?

Members of both houses of Congress have a seat for the now primetime address. Most cabinet members attend the speech, but one member must stay back at an undisclosed location with additional security as the "designated survivor." The “designated survivor” would run the government if a disaster or terrorist attack takes the lives of the President, Vice President and succession of cabinet officials. Not everyone in the audience on Tuesday night is a part of the government. The First Lady will have guests of honor who reflect the theme of the President's speech. President Ronald Reagan was the first president to invite guests to a State of the Union. This year the guests include victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Fire Chief of Moore, Oklahoma and the first professional male athlete to come out.