The State of the Union address is still a few weeks away, but its biggest talking points have already been identified: income inequality, health care, and reforms to the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
The contents of the rest of the speech, however, should come as no surprise. National security, education, immigration, and the economy have become mainstays in the annual address, a tradition that dates back more than 200 years. In this way, President Obama’s forthcoming legislative agenda echoes the first-ever State of the Union address, delivered by George Washington on this day in 1790 at Federal Hall in New York City.
Obama’s annual addresses usually begin with praise of progress, a structure that dates back to Washington:
I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs. The recent accession of the important state of North Carolina to the Constitution of the United States (of which official information has been received), the rising credit and respectability of our country, the general and increasing good will toward the government of the Union, and the concord, peace, and plenty with which we are blessed are circumstances auspicious in an eminent degree to our national prosperity.
Washington also offered some words of encouragement before diving into national priorities, something Obama will surely replicate:
Still further to realize their expectations and to secure the blessings which a gracious Providence has placed within our reach will in the course of the present important session call for the cool and deliberate exertion of your patriotism, firmness, and wisdom.
Now, time for business. National security was a top priority for Washington, too:
Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention that of providing for the common defense will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.
So was the defense budget:
In the arrangements which may be made respecting it it will be of importance to conciliate the comfortable support of the officers and soldiers with a due regard to economy.
Like Obama, Washington was also focused on immigration:
Various considerations also render it expedient that the terms on which foreigners may be admitted to the rights of citizens should be speedily ascertained by a uniform rule of naturalization.
And American innovation:
The advancement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures by all proper means will not, I trust, need recommendation; but I can not forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home, and of facilitating the intercourse between the distant parts of our country by a due attention to the post-office and post-roads.
And education, especially science:
Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness
There is one item, however, on Washington’s legislative agenda for 1790 that Obama doesn’t have to worry about:
Uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures of the United States is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to.
Unfortunately for Washington, it would take about 70 more years to achieve this “object of great importance.”
Washington delivered the address in person before a joint session of Congress. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice, opting instead to deliver it by letter. Woodrow Wilson revived the tradition in 1913, and today it has become a large public and political affair, complete with guests to illustrate the sitting president’s specific national priorities.
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