What is the real purpose of a State of the Union speech?
It has become an annual event when a president showcases his accomplishments of the past year and sets forth what he hopes to achieve in the coming year. It may serve as an exhortation to Congress to pass certain laws or approve certain appointees.
But it is called the “State of the Union” address for a reason. The Constitution, in Article II, Section 3, specifies 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 purpose of and need for this speech, according to the Constitution, was that the president was to tell Congress how the alliance between the states was holding up-- what was the state of the American union.
During the American Civil war, when Abraham Lincoln was president, the union was in bad shape, split asunder by states that wanted to go their own way. A hundred fifty years later, the government may be bordering on disfunctional, but the union itself is strong. (You may hear the president utter those very words-- that the state of the union is strong-- during his speech.)
There is no requirement that the speech be annual. It could be more frequent, or less frequent. The Constitution only says “from time to time.”
Whether the recommendation of measures “necessary and expedient” that the president feels Congress should consider should be part of the State of the Union address, or could be done at any “time to time,” is less than clear, because of the punctuation in the clause (legal scholars are big on analyzing the punctuation, even though 225 years ago, when the Constitution was written, punctuation-- like capitalization-- was irregular).
Technically, every time the president asks congress to pass a bill or a budget, he is complying with the second part of this clause in the Constitution. And since the rest of the sentence in this section deals with the president convening or adjourning Congress when they can’t seem to do it themselves, this is a provision that may transcend the separation of powers to a certain degree.
During the State of the Union address, the Congress sits in joint session in the House chamber (there isn’t enough room for them all in the Senate chamber). They welcome the president into their midst, although-- except for this occasion, or when he goes before them to ask them to declare war-- technically the president does not belong in the Capitol, which is the province of the legislative branch of government.
The presence of the Supreme Court at this joint session, and the welcoming of the president by the Congress to their home, is a sign that, at least on some level, the three branches of the United States government can still work together. The fact that they get together on a regular basis may have been a prescient idea on the part of the founders for forcing the three branches of the government to maintain-- at least on this occasion-- cordial relations.