The Then and Now of the State of the Union Address

Just three days ago, on Tuesday, January 28th 2014, President Barack Obama delivered the 93rd State of the Union (SOTU) Address. He along with his predecessors since 1933 has orally delivered the SOTU address to all of the United States citizens, most often at the beginning of a session of Congress. The annual tradition began in 1790 and has been altered throughout the years, as with President Thomas Jefferson when he decided to deliver the SOTU Address as a lengthy written statement. Many more aspects of the SOTU Address remained consistent and have changed both in the presentation and context of the Address, specifically in regards to the 1804 SOTU Address of President Thomas Jefferson and the 2014 SOTU Address of President Barack Obama.

In 1804, Jefferson upheld his practice since his first SOTU Address in 1801 to deliver the update of the Unite States government through a written document. He did so because he resented the its similarity to the formality of the British monarchical practice of addressing Parliament. Both his and Obama’s SOTU Addresses have been an annual affair though Obama’s was orally delivered and was greatly publicized. During Obama’s speech, women of Congress were present as were individuals of many ethnicities. In addition, Obama often referred to ordinary citizens seated in the audience as more than just significant political figures were welcomed to hear the Address. It was also noted during the broadcast of the Address that Obama, unlike some presidents before him, chose to greet all that he passed as he made his way through the crowd to the podium. Overall, though Jefferson’s Address was not orally delivered, it was much more formal than that of Obama’s.

Obama and Jefferson also took different focuses in their SOTU Addresses. Obama led the focus to domestic issues spanning from women’s rights and taxation that were never mentioned in that of Jefferson’s Address. Obama chose to highlight the service works that the First Lady had led rather than simply focusing on the immediate factors of the United States government. He also argued that women should be provided equal pay for equal work and that they should not be punished at work because of maternal responsibilities (paternal responsibilities alike). He stated, “…when women succeed, America succeeds,” contrasting the views of Jefferson’s time of women’s involvement in society. Obama in general chose to expand on domestic issues while Jefferson’s focus was instead on international relations and the establishment of the United States in global society.

The change in the context of both Presidents’ Addresses reflects the constant progression of the state of the union. It also reminded citizens that though much has occurred in the many years of independence, much since Jefferson’s time remained the same. For instance, when Jefferson discussed the newly acquired territories of Louisiana and areas to the West, he referenced the Indiana district filled with lead mines. He expressed how advantageous it would be to make full use of the United States’ natural resources. Obama also expressed the same opportunity in regards to domestic consumption of oil. He brought to light that we produced more oil than we had imported in the last 20 years and the economic opportunities of jobs and investment that domestic oil improved.

Thomas Jefferson also spoke of the advancement of armed forces as brought on by the act of Congress of February 28th, 1803, to build and issue a series of gunboats. The further growth of naval forces was to mainly protect domestic conflicts experienced by seaport towns and authoritative figures. Obama chose to exclaim the progress in retracting United States troops from foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the removal of American troops in the Middle East did not reflect the same sort of military growth as that of Jefferson’s time, to the families of troops fighting a foreign war it shows an advancement of the country’s military behavior.

As Obama’s Address was given in 2014 and Jefferson’s in 1804, the 210 years between of course gave way to many changes and developments in the state of the United States. There were also, however, many similarities that have continued throughout the years such as its annual delivery and many common issues and successes that may never be resolved or fully exhausted.


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