Why It Wasn’t a ‘State of the Union’ Address

The first address by the president to a joint session of Congress is called just that: an ‘address’. Quick civics lesson. I just learned this myself and thought I would share it with you. You may be wondering why President Biden’s first major address to a joint session of Congress was not called the “State of the Union.”

Isn’t that what we call the annual address? The red team sits on one side, the blue team on the other, and they applaud and scowl at alternating moments throughout the evening. It’s a stodgy football game — tennis match? I don’t know; I’m not a sports guy — of politics, policy, and pride.

The event has its own initialism: SOTU — like POTUS, SCOTUS, and SHOTUS (Second Husband of the United States, a.k.a. “Doug”). Actually, I think he’s officially called the Second Gentleman. I seem to be the only one following Doug on Medium. Hmmm, maybe that’s not him. Is Doug on Twitter? Yes, he is. Follow Doug here. Doug was there, too, last night, which was equally groundbreaking. He sat at least six feet away from Dr. Jill Biden, community college professor and muse for Biden’s education plan. Both were masked and modestly clapping.

Anyway, when things are really tense, like they were in 2020, the Speaker rips up the speech behind the back of the President — an explosive made-for-meming moment fit for the chaos of the former reality-television president. Yes, that was only last year. One year ago. It feels like five, even ten. How innocent we all were then. We had no idea what was coming: Lysoling the groceries, masked dating, drinking at 11am, over a year working from the dining room table. Before all of this, just weeks before, Pelosi tore up Trump’s “manifesto of mistruths” with her aerosols liberally flying everywhere.

Last night, the same Speaker sat behind the new president, but the context, the state of the country, and the format of the evening were wildly different. Our representatives were spaced out in the hall. The Vice President and Speaker were masked (they were also both female). And the usual crowd was pared down from 1,600 to 200, thanks to our dear friend COVID-19. The altered structure seemed to be successful, actually, focusing on Biden’s message instead of shots of the clapping crowd.

In a night of firsts, what the night was called, however, was strictly traditional. Our American tradition has been that the first address by the president to a joint session of Congress is called just that: an address. The thinking has been that because he (thus far, it’s always been a he) has only been in office for a few weeks or months, it is not truly a “state of the union.” He hasn’t had enough time to assess the full “state” of our 52-member federation. Calling it an “address” adds pomp to the speech and calls our attention to it. Biden’s first official SOTU will be held in 2022.

Other interesting facts about the annual address: it was first called the president’s “Annual Message,” until 1946. Truman’s address in 1947 was the first to be televised. Last night was the first time there has not been a designated survivor for the annual address since the practice began. There was no need, since fewer than 200 of the 535 members of Congress were allowed to be in attendance. Note that for future Zoom trivia nights.

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