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‘State of the Union’ is in flux


This evening, President Obama will – for the fifth consecutive year – speak to a joint session of Congress about the nation’s condition. But technically, it’s only his fourth State of the Union address.

Obama – like his four predecessors, starting with Ronald Reagan – gave a speech to Congress within weeks of his first inauguration, but it was not officially called a State of the Union speech.

Much about the State of the Union has to do with custom rather than requirements. Indeed, the Constitution does not require that president give an annual State of the Union address, only that “He 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.” While George Washington and John Adams gave their speeches before Congress, presidents from Thomas Jefferson (No. 3) to William Howard Taft (No. 27) sent Congress written messages that were read aloud by House and Senate clerks. According to the Congressional Research Service, Jefferson believed the speech to Congress too closely resembled the British monarch’s Speech from the Throne and was inappropriate for the relatively new republic.

Taft’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, revived the speech in 1913, largely to discuss bank reform (a topic that would again be important a century later). The speech more or less became an annual tradition with Franklin D. Roosevelt (No. 32), though he and some of his successors occasionally broke with tradition, sending in a report instead of giving a speech.

Roosevelt also is credited with the “State of the Union” moniker. The address – written or oral – had been called the “President’s Annual Message to Congress” until 1934, when Roosevelt offered the “Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union.”

An ‘A’ and an ‘R’

When it comes to winning county-level elections, Bob Armstrong has three good things going for him: His name starts with “A,” giving him good ballot placement; he shares his name with a now-deceased former mayor and county councilman; and his name has an “(R)” behind it. When running for the at-large County Council seats in the fall election, that “R” is all but a guarantee for victory considering the difficulty Democrats have winning countywide races. But that doesn’t explain why Armstrong placed second in a field of six primary candidates for the three GOP council nominations. In both the six-person primary and six-person general election, Armstrong placed higher than the better-known local Republican Bill Brown but fell behind Roy Buskirk (who also shares a name with a well-known Republican, Linda Buskirk).

How did Armstrong do it?

It wasn’t by campaigning. He did not spend or raise a dime last year, according to his campaign finance report. Must be the “A” and the “R.”

Tracy Warner, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 1981. He can be reached at 461-8113 or by email,