It is unlikely the founders ever imagined their simple instruction that the President should, “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union,” would become the annual media-saturated public ritual it is today. For more than 100 years, from 1801 to 1913, the task was accomplished by a memo from the White House to the Capitol.
After Woodrow Wilson decided to shake things up by speaking directly to Congress about how things were going, it came to be known as “the President’s Annual Message to Congress,” and was hardly noted by anyone who didn’t make their living in politics or the press.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a knack for getting attention, first began to refer to it as “the State of the Union” in 1934. By 1941, it was a means to tell Americans what was at stake in the great world war that loomed on the horizon. Nearly every January since, the sitting president strives to articulate much the same message.
In the era of electronic media, the mid-winter address has became a kind of political theater, enacted live on TV and the Internet, filled with pomp, circumstance and clever turns of phrase. Each one seeks to persuade and cajole, affirm shared values and irrefutable truths. And in doing so, each one ends up sounding an awful lot like the ones that came before.