I have only recently begun watching more mainstream coverage of important political events, and have watched only the last three State of the Union addresses. From the name I expected a summary rundown of specific figures, statistics, accomplishments, and failures, much like a monthly technical meeting. However, in each case the vast majority of the time has been spent recognizing individuals and then focusing on emotional statements without quantification, and without presenting context or statistical trends. In short, it seemed much more like a campaign speech than anything informative.

As I've only been watching these for a very short time I'm curious about whether they contained more useful information and context in the past and what the original intent of the address was. Were they always as rhetorically driven as they are now, or were they originally an opportunity to convey data to the populace?

2 Answers 2


The House's website provides a tidy summary of the State of the Union. Basically, the State of the Union began as a requirement for the President to address Congress. With the rise of broadcasting (and other) media it became a way for the President to speak directly to the nation.

The formal part of the State of the Union is a Constitutional requirement that the President regularly make recommendations to Congress regarding national priorities.

During the 19th century this was more administrative in nature. It included a discussion of both the legislative and executive budgets, as well as economic information.

Starting in 1913 (with Woodrow Wilson) the State of the Union became a political opportunity for the President to rally the nation to their priorities and their message. This largely coincided with the rise of broadcasting in the United States.

During the early 20th century, Congress required some detailed information from the President (budget and economic information). Although this was originally part of the State of the Union, it was split into separate addresses at that time.

  • Consider including how Congressed established the requirement for more detailed information. Jan 31, 2018 at 22:28

were they originally an opportunity to convey data to the populace?

The State of the Union was never intended to convey data to the populace. The original purpose, until 1913, was to convey data to Congress. From the constitution, Article II, Section 3:

He 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

So the original purpose was to give Congress information. Beyond that, the president could also suggest legislation in the State of the Union message.

Traditionally, from 1801 through 1912, presidents would send written messages to Congress. As few people read these, they tended to be dry.

Woodrow Wilson wanted to get more attention for his message, and he felt that giving the speech personally would draw more attention. So he deliberately wrote a speech that set a tone rather than conveying information. Wilson was lobbying voters to put pressure on Congress to approve his initiatives. You can read it here. The only section that mentions numbers (what I would consider data) is

The country, I am thankful to say, is at peace with all the world, and many happy manifestations multiply about us of a growing cordiality and sense of community of interest among the nations, foreshadowing an age of settled peace and good will. More and more readily each decade do the nations manifest their willingness to bind themselves by solemn treaty to the processes of peace, the processes of frankness and fair concession. So far the United States has stood at the front of such negotiations. She will, I earnestly hope and confidently believe, give fresh proof of her sincere adherence to the cause of international friendship by ratifying the several treaties of arbitration awaiting renewal by the Senate. In addition to these, it has been the privilege of the Department of State to gain the assent, in principle, of no less than 31 nations, representing four-fifths of the population of the world, to the negotiation of treaties by which it shall be agreed that whenever differences of interest or of policy arise which can not be resolved by the ordinary processes of diplomacy they shall be publicly analyzed, discussed, and reported upon by a tribunal chosen by the parties before either nation determines its course of action.

Anyway, the numbers that appear here are 31 nations and four-fifths of the population of the world. That's it for statistics in 1913.

Remember, this was in 1913. So within a year after he gave this speech, the first world war started. So his numbers were absolute hooey as far as establishing his point, that we were entering a prolonged period of peace. But you didn't ask about Wilson's inadequacies as a president (so I won't talk about how Wilson's incompetence led to Adolf Hitler and World War II).

There's a complete list of State of the Union messages. You can contrast Wilson's with Taft's immediately previous message, Thomas Jefferson's first message, or John Adams' last message. Looking at these, Wilson's use of statistical data seems typical. Taft included more, but his message was considerably longer. Adams included none. Jefferson only mentioned a few numbers in passing to support his points.

If anything, Donald Trump's 2018 speech seems to have included more such statistical data than was traditional. The early portion of his speech spent some time patting himself on the back for good news (as I've said previously, this is normal behavior by politicians, who take more credit and receive more blame for news than they deserve). Even as late as 1913, such economic data was not trumpeted as widely.

I'll leave it up to you whether this is consistent with your observations of the last two speeches (available from the previous link for those who want to read them). Note that Trump's 2017 speech was technically not a State of the Union, as he had no results to report. He hadn't been in office long enough. It was just a political speech that he happened to give in essentially the same manner as a State of the Union address.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .