During every sitting president's State of the Union address since the 1950s, at least one member of his cabinet skipped the proceedings. The absence isn't a snub, but instead part of a long-standing tradition intended to safeguard our nation’s government in the event of a mass-casualty incident.
Ahead of any occasion that sees a large number of U.S. leaders converge in one spot, a designated survivor is chosen to carry on the duties of the president should he and other members of the Executive Branch be taken out. However, things are a bit different under President Joe Biden's administration, and his 2021 address will be a bit different from those in the past. Scroll down for more information about this fascinating ritual.
Who is the designated survivor at the State of the Union? There isn't one this year.
President Biden's first address to the nation isn't technically a State of the Union and is instead being referred to by staffers as an "annual message." Since 1977, newly elected presidents have not referred to their first speech to the nation as a State of the Union, and rather as either an annual message or simply a message on a specific topic.
Interestingly enough, a designated survivor was not appointed for President Biden's presidential message. This was largely due to COVID-19 protocols. Since many of the senior government officials aren't attending the address in person, there's an even smaller chance for a mass-casualty event than there usually is.
"There does not need to be a designated survivor because the Cabinet will be watching from their offices or home, but they will not be joining him for the speech," said Press Secretary Jen Psaki in a recent press briefing.
For his 2020 address, former President Trump and his staff selected former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to be the designated survivor. During the speech, which was held in the House Chamber of the United States Capitol, the former attorney was kept in a secure location outside of Washington, D.C.
According to the Senate Historical Office, the act of having a designated survivor dates back to the 1950s, when the threat of nuclear war was on the minds of many Americans.
The thinking was that if an attack of some sort wiped out most of the government, at least one official would remain to maintain continuity of the country’s highest office.
Though the designated survivor selection process has frequently been described as random, former Whiter House Director of Speechwriting Jon Favreau (no relation to the actor of the same name) — who worked under the Obama administration — previously revealed that several factors are considered when picking a cabinet member.
"Sometimes the designated survivor is chosen based on, 'Are their programs or policies going to be a highlight of the State of the Union?'" Favreau told The Ringer in 2016.
"I remember years where education would be a big deal in the speech and therefore Arne Duncan, who was the education secretary at the time, could not be the designated survivor," he added.
The individual assigned to the role must also meet all three qualifications required in the Constitution to become President of the United States: They must be a natural-born U.S. citizen, they must be at least 35 years old, and they must have been a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years.
There are also designated survivors for each chamber of Congress.
Since 2003, at least one member of the House of Representatives and one member of the Senate have bowed out of the State of the Union speech in order to preserve legislative succession should the need arise.
Favreau denied that there is also a designated speechwriter. "Most of the speechwriters aren’t at the State of the Union. So there’s plenty of speechwriters," he told The Ringer. "There’s a full stock of speechwriters should something happen."