- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The State of the Union address may be going the way of the NFL’s Super Bowl, another January tradition that has become a February fixture.

No date has been set for the president’s annual address to Congress, but with Democrats hoping for a health care bill in hand first, the affair could be pushed until the first week in February or later — marking the latest date for a standard address in modern history.

“Soon” was the short answer that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs gave reporters last week, though he helpfully ruled out Feb. 2, the Tuesday that ABC is supposed to air the final season premiere of its show “Lost.”

“I don’t foresee a scenario in which millions of people who hope to finally get some conclusion with ‘Lost’ are pre-empted by the president,” he assured ABC’s reporters at his daily briefing.

State of the Union dates have been slipping steadily. In the 1930s, the president gave his annual address to Congress during the first week in January. By the 1960s, that had slipped to the second week, and by the 1980s, it was regularly hitting the end of January.

This year, Mr. Obama’s search for a date stems from the White House’s desire to have a major legislative accomplishment to tout — in this case, health care.

Steffen W. Schmidt, known as “Dr. Politics,” said Mr. Obama needs to have a pony before he can have a dog-and-pony show.

“You and I and everybody else knows why, and that’s that you kind of want to at least have gotten something from health care reform out there so you have bragging points,” said Mr. Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University and host of the state public radio’s “Dr. Politics” program.

Mr. Gibbs denied that the timing is tied to the legislative agenda, but he didn’t say anything more about the considerations.

The Constitution requires the president to periodically deliver a report to Congress about the state of the nation. Presidents Washington and John Adams gave theirs in person annually, but Thomas Jefferson submitted his in writing — a tradition that lasted until President Wilson returned to delivering the speech in person.

The address typically is timed to the beginning of the year’s legislative session. With Congress opening its session later each year, the date of the presidential address has slipped, too, said Betty K. Koed, associate historian for the Senate.

President Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address on Jan. 3 in 1934, Jan. 4 in 1935 and Jan. 3 in 1936. By President Kennedy’s administration, it had slipped to Jan. 30 in 1961, Jan. 11 in 1962 and Jan. 14 in 1963. President Reagan delivered all of his State of the Union addresses during the last week in January or later.

Complicating matters, newly inaugurated — or re-inaugurated — presidents often delivered both an inaugural address on Jan. 20 and a later address to Congress, which occasionally slipped into February. President Obama’s address to Congress last year was on Feb. 24, the latest ever.

In 1986, Mr. Reagan delivered his address on Feb. 4. The date was delayed a week because of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in late January.

The speech has become a chance for the president to give marching orders to Congress at the beginning of each session. Mr. Schmidt said waiting too long can be dangerous “because Congress will already start doing its mischief on its own.”

But, he said, Mr. Obama has already had great success in bending Congress to his will, so his speech this year will be less of an agenda setter and more of a chance to tout action.

Congress has to extend an invitation to the president, though it does so in consultation with the White House, which seems firmly in control of the decision this year.

In recent years, it’s been tradition to deliver the address in the middle of the week. Gerhard Peters, co-founder of the American Presidency Project, said that’s because Congress usually works Tuesday through Thursday. Lawmakers must be in session to receive the president.

Mr. Peters also said presidents are more likely now to try to avoid conflicts with TV networks’ scheduling, such as the premiere of “Lost.”

“It’s funny, but it’s also a very important point,” he said. “The president’s ability to use television to connect with the public really sort of peaked by the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now with cable television and especially the Internet, we can distract ourselves so easily.”

And indeed, the ratings have been erratic.

The last regular State of the Union, President Bush’s 2008 address, drew 37.5 million viewers, while Mr. Obama’s own post-inaugural address last year garnered 52.4 million. Mr. Bush’s 2003 address, which preceded the Iraq war, drew an audience of 62.1 million.

Still, with the health care issue resolved one way or another next year, Mr. Peters predicted a return to normal.

“I would be surprised if next year the State of the Union is in February,” he said. “I would expect it to be right around middle to late January.”

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