Donning the Hat of Chief Legislator: The President, Congress, and the State of the Union Address

Document Type



American Political Science Association

Publication Date



Political Science and International Studies


Intimately tied to our perception of presidential leadership is the influence a president wields inthe legislative process. Setting the nation on a path, outlining an agenda, and using the art ofpersuasion to achieve success while in office are all at the heart of providing leadership. These are all things that presidents seek to do with a State of the Union address. The public looks to the president to solve a host of problems; expectations on the part of the public are high. Whether or not the president is able to address these needs through legislation is a critical component of the public’s perception of presidential leadership. One avenue, and a very public one, that a president uses to signal his legislative agenda to Congress is the State of the Union address(SUA). While the policies mentioned in this speech do not encompass the whole of the president’s legislative agenda, the policies mentioned indicate the items that the administration has chosen to highlight publicly before both Congress and the rest of the country. In 1965,Lyndon Johnson began the tradition of delivering State of the Union addresses during prime-time television viewing hours, thus dramatically expanding the pool of potential viewers among the public. At this point, the SUA became a potent tool for the rhetorical president to utilize in his role as chief legislator. We analyze SUAs from 1965 to 2002 using content analysis. Our interest in SUAs is twofold. First, the SUA is no ordinary speech. How does the speech function as a form of presidential-congressional communication in a public setting? It contains both substance in the form of requests for action and symbolism meant to inspire. It is a vehicle the president uses to exhibit rhetorical leadership of Congress through deliberative rhetoric, a form of rhetoric that exacerbates the expectations gap. Second, the president is no ordinary legislator.We analyze SUAs for evidence of when the president dons his chief legislator’s hat. He uses SUAs to aid in the fulfillment of two major goals that he, as chief legislator, shares with ordinary legislators: re-election goals and making good public policy. SUAs provide an excellent forum in which the president can claim credit for past accomplishments that further the re-election goals(and related legacy goals) of the president. To advance the president’s goal of making good public policy, the chief legislator in a SUA will ask for congressional action on his policy priorities. The Congress, however, typically gives the president some form of what he has requested less than half the time. We find that the eight presidents’ median success rate for partial to full fulfillment of congressional policy requests is 43.3%. If one just considers instances where the president gets all of his request enacted, the median success rate is only 23.6%. This suggests that presidents are not particularly successful in convincing Congress to enact the legislation they highlight in their SUAs.