A joint session of Congress is a great setting for a presidential speech.
First there’s the gathering of the lawmakers in the House, creating a buzz of expectation. Then the sergeant-at-arms announces the president at the door, and he gets to walk in like it’s the Academy Awards and he’s up for Best Politician in a Leading Role – shaking hands, waving and pointing, that kind of thing.
Then there’s the speech itself, delivered from an ornate podium that stands above the audience. As a visual, everything about this says “command.”
You know what we’re talking about, right? It was that back and forth about a week ago, when the White House asked if Mr. Obama could speak to Congress about jobs and the economy on Sept. 7, but it turned out GOP presidential candidates were debating that night, so Speaker Boehner said no, Congress was washing its hair that day, could Obama wait until Sept. 8?
Speakers have seldom, if ever, turned down such a request. But Obama, stiffed on his first choice, agreed to make the change.
You see, Obama could just give that speech from the White House, and he’d have complete control over delivery time. It was asking for the enhanced setting of the House chamber that got him tangled up.
In the United States, presidents have to request to talk to the assembled Congress. They can’t just order it. And Congress has to vote to approve a joint session or a joint meeting.
Obama has spoken to four congressional joint sessions. He delivered a message on the economy shortly after he took office in 2009. He talked about his health-care reform plan later that year. And he’s given two State of the Union messages.
Foreign dignitaries address joint sessions, too. That’s a practice largely adopted by Congress in the 20th century as the nation rose to become a world power.
Which foreigner has been accorded this honor the most? No surprise here: Winston Churchill, who did it three times – in 1941, 1943, and 1952.