WASHINGTON (CNN) – President Obama's speech on health care reform Wednesday night to a joint session of Congress continues a long tradition of presidents addressing Congress outside of the more familiar setting of a State of the Union address or annual message.
George Washington began the tradition of addressing Congress in person in the form of an annual speech, satisfying the constitutional requirement that the president brief Congress on "from time to time" on "the state of the union." However, it was Washington's successor, John Adams, who was the first president to address a joint session of Congress on a specific topic outside of the regularly scheduled annual message.
Adams' first speech to Congress was an address on relations with France, delivered on May 16, 1797, just over two months after his inauguration. He would deliver his first annual message in November of that year. After Adams, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice of addressing Congress in person, saying the ceremony too closely resembled a king addressing his subjects.
Jefferson's refusal to address Congress in person would set a precedent that his successors in office would follow for the next 112 years. Eventually, President Woodrow Wilson resumed the practice of speaking before Congress in 1913, and over the course of two terms delivered six annual messages and 20 speeches on specific policy or issue areas, for a record-setting 26 total addresses before Congress.
Since Wilson, almost every president has used the setting of a joint session of Congress to deliver not only annual messages and State of the Union addresses, but also to address a wide array of topics. Herbert Hoover never gave a State of the Union or annual message, but did briefly address a joint session in 1932 to kick off a celebration regarding George Washington's birthday.
War was a frequent topic of discussion in speeches to Congress. Presidents Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and George H.W. Bush addressed joint sessions to discuss wars or military conflicts the United States had been involved in at the time. Presidents Eisenhower and Carter each gave speeches on the Middle East. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan discussed the nation's economy in joint session addresses, while President Clinton discussed health care reform in a 1993 joint session speech. The last president to give a non-State of the Union/annual message address to Congress was President George W. Bush, who discussed the 9/11 terrorism attacks in 2001.
President Obama will deliver Wednesday night's speech at roughly the same point former presidents George W. Bush and Clinton delivered their second addresses to a joint session of Congress and on the same date Nixon gave his 1971 joint session speech on the economy.
Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan each gave a total of three non-State of the Union/annual message speeches before Congress, the most of any president since Truman, who gave nine.