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State of the Union: What to know about the president’s address to Congress

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will deliver his third State of the Union address on Thursday night before a joint session of Congress.

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The address, mandated by Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, states that 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.”

Thursday’s speech will be delivered by Biden at 9 p.m. EST.

The speech is steeped in history, and presidents have used the address to outline their vision for the upcoming year.

Here are some things to know about the State of the Union address.

What is the State of the Union?

The State of the Union is a speech given by the president to members of both houses of Congress, according to The Hill. The president reports on the state of the country and outlines his policy priorities for the coming year.

Who gave the first speech?

President George Washington’s speech was given on Jan. 8, 1790, in New York City, nine months after his inauguration. The speech was only 833 words in length and lasted approximately 10 minutes, CNN reported. It remains the shortest State of the Union speech in history.

Early addresses

Presidents during the 19th century typically delivered the State of the Union in writing, where it was read to Congress.

Thomas Jefferson began the trend on Dec. 8, 1801, sending written copies to both houses, according to The Associated Press. They were read by each chamber’s clerks, and the tradition continued until Woodrow Wilson personally addressed Congress on April 8, 1913.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to refer to the speech as the State of the Union.

On radio and TV

Calvin Coolidge delivered the first speech broadcast on radio in 1923, according to the AP.

In 1947, Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, delivered the first televised State of the Union address, CNN reported. In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson began the practice of delivering the address in prime time.

Postponed address

The explosion of the Challenger space shuttle on Jan. 28, 1986, caused Ronald Reagan to postpone the State of the Union, which had been scheduled for that night. Instead, Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval Office and delivered a soothing, emotional speech aimed to reassure the American public.

Longest address

Since 1964, the longest State of the Union address was delivered by Bill Clinton on Jan. 27, 2000, according to The American Presidency Project. Clinton’s speech ran 1 hour, 28 minutes, 49 seconds.

Biden’s speech in 2023 lasted 73 minutes.

The last State of the Union that was less than an hour came in 2016, when Barack Obama delivered a speech that lasted 58:44.

What presidents did not deliver a State of the Union?

Two presidents died in office before they could deliver a message to Congress. In 1841, William Henry Harrison died 32 days after his inauguration. Forty years later, James A. Garfield was assassinated after 199 days in office, The Associated Press reported.

Opposing viewpoint

The party not in the White House typically delivers a response to the president’s address, according to The Hill. The tradition began in 1966. According to the Senate website, On January 17, 1966, in the Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber, Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford delivered the first official opposition response to Johnson’s State of the Union.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave the Republican Party’s response to Biden’s address in 2023.

This year, Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., will respond to Biden’s address. She is the first woman Republican U.S. senator from Alabama and the youngest female to serve in the Senate as a member of the GOP.

In a social media post late last month, Britt said she was grateful for the chance to “speak directly with my fellow Americans” and have a “candid conversation about the future of our nation.”

Britt has also been mentioned as a possible running mate for Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and former president.

Special guests

Biden and members of Congress are allowed to invite guests to the State of the Union, generally to honor their inspiring stories or to emphasize a particular cause or policy, according to Axios.

It is believed that Ronald Reagan was the first president to use a guest in 1982, CNN reported. Reagan introduced Lenny Skutnik who jumped into the Potomac River to help rescue survivors of an airplane crash.

This year’s guest list:

  • Biden and first lady Jill Biden invited Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but she was unable to attend, according to the White House. also invited was Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady, but she declined, The Washington Post reported.
  • Jill Biden invited Kate Cox, a Texas mother forced to seek an emergency abortion outside of the state.
  • House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., invited the parents of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is imprisoned in Russia. Gershkovich was arrested on March 29, 2023, by Russian authorities on charges of espionage.
  • Johnson, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and other bipartisan members of Congress are jointly hosting 17 relatives of Americans killed or held hostage by Hamas.
  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has invited Elizabeth Carr, the first person born via in vitro fertilization (IVF), according to Axios.

Designated survivor

It sounds morbid, but because the president, vice president, the leaders of Congress and its membership are in attendance, one person stays away from the chamber in case of a disaster, CNN reported.

Former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh was the designated survivor in 2023.

First Lady Jill Biden has invited Navy commander and Wakefield, Massachusetts native, Shelby M. Nikitin, to attend the State of the Union as one of her guests.

Nikitin, a 2004 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, just completed a tour onboard the USS Thomas Hunder.

Under her leadership, the ship helped protect other vessels in the Red Sea from attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Nikitin was awarded a Bronze Star for actions as she helped protect lives and the free flow of commerce.