Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution declares that the president of the United States "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."
President Bush will deliver his State of the Union address to Congress and the American people this Wednesday. Iraq and Social Security are expected to be among the key topics mentioned, but are definitely not the end of it.
"It has become the most important speech a president makes each year," says George Stephanopoulos, anchor of ABC News' "This Week." "The one chance he has to speak -- at length and unfiltered -- to the whole country in prime time. The ultimate captive audience. That is a relatively recent phenomenon."
It is a recent transformation. Although Presidents George Washington and John Adams appeared personally before Congress to deliver the annual message, Thomas Jefferson in 1801 delivered his in writing -- a practice that would remain the tradition until Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress in person in 1913 to deliver his address.
While the State of the Union address was originally meant as a report to the legislative branch of the government, the invention of radio and television changed the primary audience from Congress to the American people. Presidents now use this opportunity to put pressure on Congress to pass their legislative agenda by appealing directly to the American people.
"No question presidents have to touch a lot of political bases in the speech," Stephanopoulos explains. "That's why it's most important to pay attention not to the number of ideas mentioned, but the numbers of words dedicated to each idea. Word count is the best indicator of how much the president wants his proposal to pass."
On Wednesday night, Bush is expected to do what the bully pulpit of the presidency allows: he will try and set the agenda, set the stage, claim the mantle of leadership -- all because of the importance projected onto the State of the Union.
The annual address to Congress is just as much about artistic appeals to the public as it is about logical exposition of policy. Typically, the State of the Union address serves as a warehouse of ideas, political arguments and sound bites we will hear the president make over the course of the year as he tries to implement his proposals.
The story of the speech's origin is not new. The Constitution requires only that the president transmit a message of the state of the union to Congress each year. But Jefferson apparently felt the practice elevated the president of the United States to a throne not befitting a democratic nation. So he discontinued the practice of addressing Congress in person.
Since Wilson revived the State of the Union, the speech has been a mix of rhetoric and policy. The speech must contain rhetoric strong enough to engage the imagination of Congress and the American people, but also have enough substance to explain the purpose behind the president's proposals.
Presidents typically begin their addresses with some form of "The state of our union is strong," and it is likely this year's will begin the same.
When previewing his address in front of Republican members of Congress last week, Bush made mention of two major areas he will address -- Iraq and Social Security.
"I will remind the country we're still at war," he said. "I will also tell the people once again that I strongly believe that the way to defeat hatred and terrorism is to spread freedom. And I believe everybody in the world deserves to be free."
These comments continue the theme of spreading democracy that dominated Bush's second inaugural address just weeks ago.
"I look forward to talking to the country about the need for big reforms like Social Security," Bush told the GOP members. He will talk of his broad plan to establish Social Security personal accounts -- a source of much debate among both Democrats and Republicans.
Further, in a background briefing at the White House today, a senior administration official offered up more details, saying that the first half of the speech will focus on domestic policy and the second half on foreign policy.
On the foreign policy front, the president will address the Middle East peace process in the wake of last month's Palestinian elections, the official said.
Giving a State of the Union Speech in an Election Year
President Bush has an impressive track record when it comes to pushing through key parts of his agenda. He has successfully enacted his proposed tax cuts; education reform, including the No Child Left Behind Act; intelligence reform; the Patriot Act; and adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
Last year's address came at the height of primary season -- a politically charged time. Bush gave the speech in the week between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hamphire primary -- when he could capture headlines from the Democrats. In a year when the president himself, as well as many members of Congress, would be fighting for their political lives, the State of the Union was a way for Bush to retake the political initiative.
With Saddam Hussein in captivity and the United States in a global war on terror, Bush began his address with a topic polls showed was his biggest strength among voters -- national security. "Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better," he said.
He immediately changed the subject to domestic policy, though, touching on health care, the economy, education, Social Security and same-sex marriage.
The Democratic Pre-Buttal
Whatever Bush says on Wednesday night, the Democrats in Congress are ready to pounce on a few key issues. On Monday, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called on the administration to outline an exit strategy for Iraq, while House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised lasting opposition to Social Security benefit cuts.
The Democratic leaders did not mince words. Reid said that while Sunday's elections in Iraq were "a first step in helping figure out a way that the United States can get out of Iraq. We have to figure out a way to remove ourselves from there with dignity."
Pelosi went a step further, with a sarcastic remark about the applause Bush could expect from the Republican members. "You really don't have to have very many communications skills if you have a couple of hundred people who will jump to their feet when you recite the ABCs," she said.
The Republican National Committee responded quickly. Spokesman Brian Jones issued a statement saying "Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid's obstructionist remarks today were full of pessimism and personal attacks but lacked any vision for winning the war on terror or preserving Social Security for future generations."
The Democrats, bitter from losing the election in November, are ready to fight. Bush, however, has proven up to this point, he is ready to fight back to see his initiatives become policy.
In his inaugural address, Bush laid out his "goals and ideals," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said today. The State of the Union, McClellan said, would be a "more detailed practical blueprint" of the president's agenda.