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State of the Union Address

The State of the Union Address is an annual speech delivered to Congress by the President of the United States at the beginning of each calendar year in office. It is probably the most watched and best attended political event of the year.
President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, Photo.
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Historical background

Each year, the President of the United States holds a speech called State of the Union, or SOTU. It is even written in the Constitution that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information about the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (U.S. Constitution, article 2). This means that once a year the President has to give reports to Congress about the current condition of the country, but that he also has the opportunity to provide policy proposals for the year ahead.

Over time, the State of the Union address has developed considerably. The first American Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, delivered their speeches to Congress in person, while several presidents after them delivered their messages in writing instead. This precedent was followed until President Woodrow Wilson personally appeared in Congress again in 1913, and it became an annual tradition since President Franklin D. Roosevelt also conducted his address in person in 1933.

Today, the annual State of the Union address is held by the President in late January or early February, and is broadcasted to a prime time national audience. The speech thereby functions not only as a report to Congress but is also a golden opportunity for the President to convey a vision for the nation, speak directly to the public, and appeal to both old and new voters at the same time.

Key elements from Donald Trump’s SOTU speech 2020

President Donald Trump held his last State of the Union Address in Congress on 4 February, 2020. Here are a few key elements from the speech:

  • Trump proclaimed that the American economy was setting records, American enemies were on the defensive, and the American spirit had been renewed.
  • He correctly pointed out that the unemployment rate was the lowest in half a century. However, he incorrectly claimed that he had enacted “record-setting tax cuts,” that the economy was “the best it has ever been” and that stock markets have “soared 70 percent,” exaggerating the real percentage.
  • Despite being impeached two weeks earlier, Trump never directly addressed the issue of impeachment.
  • Trump criticised his opposition and warned that the Democrats wanted to “provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens.”
  • The President and First Lady also invited a selection of guests, from brave military families to hardworking local leaders, who they believe each represents the very best of American people and people all over the world.

Reactions in the House of Representatives

In addition to the words from the speech itself, it is also interesting to consider what happens in the room in the beginning, during and at the end of the address. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and President Donald Trump had a strained relationship ever since he took office in January 2017. Their mutual animosity intensified further when Democrats took control over the House in 2019, and the following presidential impeachment on allegations of abuse of power. The spectators of the SOTU could clearly see this tension just before the speech started, when Trump refused to shake Pelosi’s hand on stage, and during the speech, when Pelosi did not applaud most of the president’s utterances. The most obvious demonstrative behaviour, however, was when she tore her printed copy of the speech into pieces. She later explained that this was because it was a “manifesto of untruths”. You can see this interaction on YouTube.

In addition, one might also notice when watching the speech that a large group of female Democratic Congresswomen, including Pelosi herself, was wearing white to show their unity and their commitment to defending the rights of women. The above-mentioned are eager to leave Congress once the speech has ended, while the other half are in standing ovation. All this makes it clear that it is not only a speech that informs Congress on the state of the union, but that it is also a speech that provokes and sparks political tension and debates.

Congresswomen Pelosi joins her House Democratic Women Representative colleagues by wearing white in a powerful show of unity to honor women’s suffrage – a symbol of purity supporting the defense on women’s rights.
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CNN (Feb.5, 2020) 5 takeaways from Donald Trump’s State of the Union. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/04/politics/state-of-the-union-highlights-takeaways/index.html

Congressional Research Service (2020) History, Evolution, and Practices of the President’s State of the Union Address: Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/

New York Times (Feb.5, 2020) Six Takeaways From Trump’s State of the Union Address. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/us/politics/state-of-union-speech-address.html

United States House of Representatives (date unknown) State of the Union Address. Retrieved from: https://history.house.gov/Institution/SOTU/State-of-the-Union/

USA Today (Feb.5, 2020) “Pelosi discraced herself: GOP outraged by Pelosi ripping up Trump State of the Union speech”. Retrieved from https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/02/05/nancy-pelosi-ripping-trump-sotu-speech-reactions/4665113002/

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CC BY-SASkrevet av Lena Øyre Leirdal.
Sist faglig oppdatert 03.11.2020


Democracy and Human Rights