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Will He Or Won't He? The State Of This Year's State Of The Union Address


A week from tonight, President Trump is supposed to deliver a State of the Union address to Congress and the nation. Now, whether he will or not it is an open question. The White House is moving ahead with plans but no word yet on whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will give him the permission he needs. She had suggested last week that Trump postpone his speech until after the shutdown ends or maybe just deliver a written version and skip the speech part.

Well, uncertainty over the mechanics of this year's speech has given us reason to reconsider the century-old tradition of the State of the Union. Joining me now is NPR's Ron Elving. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the century-old tradition, I just called it. And I did not know until quite recently that the president is not actually required to show up on Capitol Hill and deliver a big old State of the Union speech. When did that actually begin?

ELVING: Woodrow Wilson was really reviving the idea of reporting in person to Congress in 1913 when he gave his first report. But it was originated actually by George Washington in 1790 before the Capitol building as we know it was ever built. Wilson was a college professor, and he loved the idea of lecturing Congress and laying out his agenda. And plenty of other presidents have loved that idea, too. They started putting them on the radio in the '20s and on television in 1947.


ED HERLIHY: The Capitol awaits the arrival of President Truman to deliver his message on the state of the Union.

ELVING: And since then, presidents have pretty much wanted to have that opportunity to reach the big, national audience.

KELLY: You mentioned television, which is a reminder, I guess, of the optics of this - that if it were to go ahead, Nancy Pelosi would of course be sitting there right behind the president. And it's also a reminder this is her chamber. She gets to decide who addresses it.

ELVING: And actually, Nancy Pelosi introduced George W. Bush back in 2007 after the Democrats had taken control of the House of Representatives at that time.


NANCY PELOSI: Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and the distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.

ELVING: And that is how, in general, the Congress has shown its respect for the president of the United States.

KELLY: You're describing some of the traditions behind all this. What about just the message? How powerful a platform is this for the president? Do these speeches tend to resonate?

ELVING: They do in historic moments, such as FDR announcing the four freedoms that we would fight for if we were to be pulled into World War II...


FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

ELVING: ...LBJ declaring unconditional war on poverty.


LYNDON B JOHNSON: And this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

ELVING: George W. Bush in 2003 set the stage for the invasion of Iraq that was coming in March with a series of accusations about Iraq seeking weapons of mass destruction.


GEORGE W BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

ELVING: That of course was later repudiated as an accusation against Iraq. Barack Obama, in 2014, following a government shutdown the previous fall took that opportunity to chastise the members of Congress who had pressed for that shutdown.


BARACK OBAMA: When our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, then we are not doing right by the American people.

ELVING: A moment of precedence perhaps for the former president.

KELLY: You know, one of the things that strikes me about the State of the Union is what a security nightmare it is - all of those people in one chamber, so much so that they always leave one member of the cabinet in an undisclosed location. But that combined with the shutdown - is this an opportunity to shake it up, how this speech unfolds every year?

ELVING: Many would like it to be such a moment. This has perhaps outlived its usefulness. We're now used to seeing the president. It does give a certain advantage of course to the incumbent president. And the opposition party is never terribly happy about that - giving him an entire hour to present his case on any number of controversial subjects. And certainly we would anticipate that would be the case again this year.

KELLY: NPR's Ron Elving - he is senior editor and correspondent on the Washington Desk. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.