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Why is this Biden's 1st State of the Union even though it's his 2nd year in office?

While the constitution calls for the president to give Congress a message about the state of the union, the address hasn't always been called that.

President Joe Biden holds his first State of the Union on Tuesday, addressing the nation before a joint session of Congress for the second time. While that may sound contradictory, given that this is his second address before Congress, it's not.

Why is this Biden's first State of the Union?

One stated belief is because when the president addresses Congress the first time in the weeks after being sworn in, they haven't been in charge long enough to announce what the "State of the Union" is. But that's not the case, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The idea of not calling the first address the State of the Union is a relatively new practice in American history. 

"The past seven Presidents have chosen not to give an official State of the Union address the year they were first inaugurated, having just previously delivered an inaugural address," the CRS said. "In each instance their first speech to a joint session of Congress closely followed their inauguration, but was not officially categorized as a 'State of the Union Message.'"

What is the State of the Union address and why do presidents give the address to Congress?

It's in the Constitution.

Article II, Section 3, clause 1 states that the President “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.”

The Constitution does not mandate that the address be delivered in person. For a long time, it wasn't. Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president, stopped the practice of delivering it in person. It was revived by Woodrow Wilson 112 years later. 

Presidents still reserve the right to deliver the message in a written form, but at least one annual, in-person address on some topic has been delivered fairly consistently since 1934.

Was it always called the State of the Union?

No. The message was known as the "President's Annual Message to Congress" until World War II, CRS said. 

The informal title of the State of the Union message or address was given from 1942 to 1946. It officially became known as the State of the Union in 1947.

According to the U.S. House of Representatives archives, Biden's address on April 28, 2021, was not an "annual message." It was a speech on his "Build Back Better" plan.

Credit: AP
President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., look on. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

Barack Obama and Donald Trump's first addresses were also not dubbed "annual messages" but were focused on the economy.

Sometimes, presidents will appear for a second time in a year to address Congress for more specific reasons. George W. Bush spoke to Congress just over a week after the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks to address terrorism. Obama made a mid-year appearance to sell the Affordable Care Act.

Who had the longest and shortest State of the Union?

George Washington had the shortest annual message to Congress at 1,089 words. Bill Clinton's 1995 address was 9,190 words.

Jimmy Carter had the longest written message to Congress at 33,667 words, according to CRS. But that went out in 1981 just before he left office.

Clinton's final State of the Union in 2000 is the longest in terms of time -- one hours, 29 minutes.

What does SOTU stand for? 

That's just an acronym for the State of the Union. 

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