Bush's State of the Union in Historical Terms

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.

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