State of the Union speeches are part of the art form of American government and in retrospect sometimes provoke irony. On Jan. 26, 1982, President Reagan pledged to a hopeful nation that ''the program for economic recovery that is in place will pull the economy out of its slump and put us on the road to prosperity and stable growth by the latter part of this year.''
The recession hasn't disappeared yet, though Mr. Reagan says we are on the right course. On Tuesday, he again is expected to make an optimistic forecast in this annual presidential ritual. The nation will listen, applaud, and hope.
The US Constitution directs the president (Article II Section 3) that ''he 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. . . .''
George Washington began it. His first ''annual message,'' as it was called then, or ''State of the Union message'' as it has been known since 1945, came Jan. 8, 1790. He wrote eight messages in eight years. Some four years later, he hailed the Constitution, ''the precious repository of American happiness'' and added, ''Let them cherish it, too, for the sake of those who, from every clime, are daily seeking a dwelling in our land.''
Since then, annual addresses have included assortments of current aspirations and incongruities, in general reflecting the hopes and tensions of the times. Like snapshots out of a family photograph album, the assorted pictures tell a story and often provoke poignant memories.
Reagan likes to begin even the most solemn addresses with a bit of whimsy. A year ago, after the entrance of senators and representatives to a joint session in the great hall of the House of Representatives, with the television lights on and the nation watching, quoted George Washington and added facetiously:
''For our friends in the press, who place a high premium on accuracy, let me say: I did not actually hear George Washington say that, but it is a matter of historic record.''
Humor does not often touch the ritual of the State of the Union. Last year things were grim: ''The situation at this time last year was truly ominous. . . . A year ago, America's faith in their governmental process was steadily declining. Six out of 10 Americans were saying they were pessimistic about their future. . . . Our current problems . . . are the inheritance of decades of tax and tax, spend and spend.''
He would change all that, he promised: ''I am confident the economic program we have put into operation will protect the needy while it triggers a recovery that will benefit all Americans. It will stimulate the economy, result in increased savings and thus provide capital for expansion, mortgages for homebuilding, and jobs for the unemployed.''
A tone of lofty optimism is expected in the State of the Union speeches in which presidents seek to inspire the public: ''The face of our country everywhere presents the evidence of laudable enterprise, of extensive capital and durable improvement,'' said James Madison, Nov. 29, 1809. John Quincy Adams put it more simply, ''The spirit of improvement is abroad upon the earth!'' Dec. 6, 1825. After the carnage of the Civil War it was inevitable that Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, (near impeachment by the Senate) should try to put a rosy face on things, ''Where in past history does a parallel exist to the public happiness which is within reach of the people of the United States?'' he asked, Dec. 4, 1865. Gerald Ford was a rather amusing exception to this conventional cheery optimism when he began, Jan. 15, 1975: ''I must say to you that the State of the Union is not good. . . . '' A year later he announced, ''Tonight I report to you that the State of our Union is better . . . but still not good enough.''
Another theme that appears again and again is the recurrent yearning for a balanced budget. In his first State of the Union, President Eisenhower took an oblique crack at Harry Truman, Feb. 2, 1953, by announcing that he would ''reduce the planned deficits and then balance the budget. . . . The first order of business is the elimination of the annual deficit.'' In 1959 Ike again promised ''a balanced budget for the next year.'' Unfortunately it didn't come in 1960: A recession intervened. Most people didn't hold it against Ike, however; they got comfort out of his grin and confidence. In 1956 his speech was read for him by a clerk. Two other missing names in the chronology are William Henry Harrison, who died a month after taking office, and James A. Garfield, assassinated six months after his inauguration.
Along with the State of the Union, with its hope, promises, occasional bombast and inspiration, comes an inevitable reexamination a year later of what was said. The economy has not been kind to President Reagan. There is a deep recession. Following tradition, Reagan is apt to be encouraging in 1983. Most presidents end with an inspirational passage.
Mr. Reagan said last year: ''Let us so conduct ourselves that two centuries from now, another Congress and another President, meeting in this chamber . . . , will speak of us with pride, saying that we met the test and preserved for them in their day the sacred flame of liberty - the last, best hope of man on Earth.''