The Long, The Short and The Ugly State of The Union Speeches

By Andrew Ivey | Speeches

Feb 19
President Obama state of the union speech

President Obama addresses Congress with his 2012 state of the union speech

Constitutionally mandated to update Congress on the state of the union, the US President isn’t required, by the Constitution, to give a speech to the two Houses.

Earlier Presidents considered that giving a speech before Congress was too similar to the practice of the British Monarch speaking before Parliament outlining his or her government’s policies. They chose a written report to Congress. And that practice ran for a very long time.

But today’s President would probably be unwise to pass up such a prime-time public speaking opportunity, televised and webcast around the nation.

Jimmy Carter presented a written state of the union to Congress in 1981, but that’s the modern exception. That written address, some 34,000 words, was the longest ever presented to Congress…fortunately no-one had to listen to it.

Gerhard Peters of the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has researched all the state of the union speeches, with some unusual findings.

President Obama’s state of the Union address this year was conspicuously long, timed at one hour and five minutes. But it’s not the longest state of the union address.

That record goes to Bill Clinton’s speech before Congress in January 1995. On that occasion he spoke for one hour and 25 minutes. His speech contained 9,190 words and clearly went at a pretty sedate pace.

That speech in 1995 was good for Bill Clinton’s averages. In seven state of the union speeches he averaged 7,400 words. That’s some average compared to the speaking record of the first President. President George Washington averaged 2,080 words in his eight state of the union speeches to Congress. It’s no surprise that the country’s first President has the record for the shortest speech–1,089 words…about ten minutes worth or so.

George Washington’s speeches were definitely becoming longer towards the end of his presidency, but they appear casually brief by today’s standard. That’s modern government for you. So much more to say!

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About the Author

The Principal Trainer at training business Time to Market. Based in Oxford, I run presentation and public speaking training courses, coaching sessions and seminars throughout the UK. Andrew Ivey on Google+