If you've caught any mention of the State of the Union on your television, you've probably noticed that most of the coverage neglects to answer a basic question. Most people know that the address will be Donald Trump's first as president, sure, and that it'll happen on Tuesday, Jan. 30. But what about another question: What exactly is the State of the Union?
It's not the worst question in the world, especially since newscasters and writers (guilty) usually neglect to explain the answer when covering the speech.
So let's start here: The event is literally what its title implies, an update on the state of the union. The president's responsibility to deliver the speech is outlined in the U.S. Constitution, where Article II, Section 3 states, "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."
You see that language? That's why presidents use these speeches to tout the key achievements of their administrations, explain to the public who the country is fighting abroad, and, as the Constitution says, "recommend" to Congress certain laws to pass.
Let's take one simple example. During his 2012 State of the Union address, former President Barack Obama talked about the lack of confidence the public has in Washington D.C.
"Some of this has to do with the corrosive influence of money in politics," Obama said in his speech. "So together, let’s take some steps to fix that. Send me a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress; I will sign it tomorrow. Let’s limit any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact. Let’s make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can’t lobby Congress, and vice versa — an idea that has bipartisan support, at least outside of Washington."
Obama's recommendation to Congress drew applause from both sides of the aisle during his speech (which often features just one side, the president's party, standing to applaud).
Three months later, he signed a bill banning insider trading.
So, on Tuesday night, you could expect something similar from President Trump. For example, he may outline the parameters of an immigration deal, and explain exactly what he'd be looking for in a compromise over DACA.
He could also commission Congress to start working on a plan to revamp the nation's infrastructure. After all, he's been talking about that plan since his days campaigning around the country, and an infrastructure bill has long been considered one effort that Democrats and Republicans can actually work together on (you know, without all the drama).
Other Points To Note
There are a couple of other things to keep in mind in understanding exactly what a State of the Union address is. The speech happens every year during a president's tenure, except during the first calendar year of an administration.
Now, that might cause confusion. You might have noticed that the first photo featured in this article shows Trump delivering a speech in front of the same backdrop as Obama's speeches. So how could this be Trump's first State of the Union?
Well, it's true, last year Trump did deliver a similar speech, but it wasn't a State of the Union, it was simply a joint address before Congress. A joint address is delivered in the same manner as a State of the Union. The president stands at the same podium, at the same location (in the chamber of the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill), and with the same seating arrangement behind him, the vice president over his right shoulder and the speaker of the House over his left.
A joint address merely refers to the type of speech delivered before both chambers of Congress, the Supreme Court justices, the president's cabinet and the nation's top army officials.
So, on Tuesday, Trump will technically be delivering a joint address and his State of the Union speech.