Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Political Science and International Studies


While the Constitution stipulates in Article II, Sec. 3 that presidents can recommend necessary and expedient measures to Congress, it is up to Congress to act. The primary place presidents engage in the activity of recommending legislation is the State of the Union Address (SUA). We examine SUAs from 1965-2002 and identify the legislative requests that presidents make of Congress. The SUA is a unique presidential speech that allows assessment and comparison between presidents of whether Congress follows where the president leads. Are presidents successful in getting Congress to enact the policies they ask for in the SUA? Furthermore, the policy making environment is complex and in order to assess the nature and role of the chief legislator’s communications with Congress in the SUA, we utilize case studies to determine what role the SUA played in the outcome of four cases. Each case was chosen based on its outcome. One is an unsuccessful request (constitutional amendment for four-year house terms), one is fully successful (authorization and funding of a manned space station), one is partially successful (civil service reform), and one is a repeat request from multiple presidents that was eventually successful (line-item veto). We find that when a president uses the SUA to request action of Congress, he typically receives about two in five of his requests, either in full or in part, during the following congressional session. In each of our four cases, the SUA played an integral role in the outcome, although this did not always mean the president was successful in getting his request enacted, or that the SUA was the most important factor. The SUA is an excellent tool of political communication for the chief legislator, but it is not without its limitations. The chief legislator’s position in the political system makes it much more likely Congress will give consideration to his requests, but it does not guarantee the president will receive a substantial amount of his requests. The chief legislator’s increase in rhetorical powers represented in the SUA did give him an advantage over regular legislators, but it did not unduly increase his power over the legislature. The chief legislator is not an ordinary legislator, but neither is he empowered with a rhetorical arsenal with which he can assault Congress. The system of shared legislative powers continues to check the president despite an increase in the president’s rhetorical power. The SUA is a tool the chief legislator can utilize to facilitate congressional leadership, but it is not a weapon with which he can cudgel Congress into accepting his leadership.


Prepared for delivery at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 1 - September 4, 2005.


Copyright © 2005 the American Political Science Association.