- Understand the constitutional basis and history of the State of the Union Address
- Explore significant moments in twentieth century State of the Union Addresses and identify important historic themes
- Collaborate with classmates to identify likely topics for the State of the Union Address
- Assess President Obama’s State of the Union Address
Note: These activities require access to the internet.
1. The Origins of the State of the Union Address
a. Interpreting the Constitution: Distribute the handout The State of the Union Address to the class. Ask students to read Article II, Section III silently to themselves and then ask someone to read it aloud to the class. Prompt students to identify words or phrases they don’t understand. Have students express Article II, Section III in their own words. How precise is the Constitution about how often the president needs to report on the State of Union?
b. A Short History: Have students watch the short video Inside the White House: “The State of the Union Address”. Ask students how the State of the Union has evolved over time? Where is it given? Who attends the State of the Union Address?
2. Historic State of the Union Addresses
Break the class into groups of two or three. (The activity can also be done as a whole class, or as a homework assignment.) Distribute the graphic organizer Historic Addresses to each student. Direct students to the interactive timeline. Depending on time available, assign each group a few or all of the presidential speeches and have them fill in the graphic organizer. Tell students to look for the “recommended viewing” time period at the end of each description. (Students viewing President Nixon’s Address have two short clips to watch.)
Have the groups report back to the class. Tell students to record information from the other groups’ reports on their graphic organizer.
- What historical events are mentioned?
- Which State of the Union Addresses were optimistic? Which were pessimistic?
- What were the main issues featured in the video selections?
- Were issues repeated from president to president?
- Do any of the issues mentioned have relevance today?
3. Previewing the President’s Address
Tell students that they will be watching President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union Address.
Distribute the graphic organizer President Obama’s Address. Ask the class to brainstorm what students think the president will speak about. What do students think will be the main issue? Have students explain their reasoning. What are the other issues that they believe President Obama will bring up? Have students record their answers on the graphic organizer. Tell students that they will use the graphic organizer when watching the State of the Union. Watch the State of the Union Address as a class or assign it for homework.
4. Making Connections
Have students refer to their graphic organizers and present their findings.
- What topic got the most attention from the president? Why do students think the president focused on these topics?
- Did the president make any historical references?
- Did he talk about any topics that the class did not anticipate?
- Are there any from their list of anticipated topics that the president did not talk about? Why do they think this is so?
- Ask each student to share one point that the president made that he/she agreed with.
- Ask each student to share one point that he/she disagreed with.
- What was the main idea or message of President Obama’s speech?
5. Extra Challenge
Tell students that President Obama, like many presidents before him, reads letters everyday and responds to some of the letters that are written to him. Distribute the handout A Letter to the President to the class. Have students write a letter to the president about some aspect of his State of the Union Address. They can choose to write in support or opposition to a policy that he has expressed. They might also choose to note an issue that he did not mention or include a personal story that relates to a policy issue. Students can mail their letters to the president or use the White House website.