Obama in the footsteps of George Washington

February 25th, 2009 - 11:13 am ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaWashington, Feb 25 (IANS) In addressing a joint session of the US Congress, President Barack Obama Tuesday followed a tradition started by George Washington who delivered the first “annual message” on Jan 8, 1790, at the Federal Hall in New York.

Washington and his successor, John Adams, delivered their annual messages as speeches before Congress. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, discontinued this practice in 1801, saying the elaborate, formal ceremony - which included a “president’s throne” - too closely resembled a king addressing his subjects.

Instead, Jefferson’s private secretary carried the written message to Capitol Hill, and it was read to the chamber by the clerk of the House. The practice of written annual messages continued for 112 years.

Woodrow Wilson resumed the practice of delivering the “annual message” as a speech before Congress on Dec 2, 1913. Wilson’s decision was controversial at the time. Almost every president since has delivered the address in person, rather than in writing.

The president’s message was not referred to as a State of the Union until Jan 6, 1941 (Franklin Roosevelt’s eighth address). Before that, the State of the Union was generally referred to as the president’s “annual message”.

Harry Truman delivered the longest State of the Union in 1946 at 25,000 words; Washington’s 1790 address was the shortest at 833 words.

The only postponement of a State of the Union occurred in 1986. Ronald Reagan was scheduled to deliver his address on Jan 28, 1986, the same day the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The speech was delayed until Feb 4.

At least one member of the president’s cabinet is designated not to attend the speech in person to ensure the presidential line of succession. The choice of which cabinet member stays away rotates among the departments. This year, Attorney General Eric Holder did not attend.

Obama’s Tuesday night speech was the 220th annual message. It was the 76th time a president has done so in person. It will not technically be a State of the Union address. Since 1977, new presidents haven’t called their first speech before Congress that.

The last Democratic president to address a Democratic-controlled Congress was Bill Clinton in 1994.

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