Designated survivor: The person who will lead America if tragedy hits the State of the Union

Designated survivor: The person who will lead America if tragedy hits the State of the Union

All eyes will be fixed on Joe Biden during the president’s State of the Union address on Capitol Hill, but there is one individual guaranteed to miss the event.

Referred to as the “designated survivor,” this role is filled by a member of the president’s administration who is required to abstain from attending the State of the Union, typically held at the United States Capitol.

While most individuals in the presidential line of succession gather in one location during the address, the designated survivor must remain in a separate, secure location. This measure ensures the continuity of government should a disaster occur at the Capitol.

Consider it akin to the US’s equivalent of the protocol that prohibits King Charles and Prince William from traveling on the same aircraft.

Tonight’s designated survivor has been disclosed as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

In the previous year, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh assumed the role of designated survivor. Similarly, in 2022, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was designated. The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara has compiled a record of past designated survivors dating back to 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Occasionally, global events like a pandemic can disrupt traditional practices. In 2021, there was no designated survivor as usual because those who would have attended the address in person participated remotely.

The official presidential order of succession comprises 18 individuals: the vice president, the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, 14 secretaries, and the attorney general. Typically, the designated survivor is selected from among the secretaries and the attorney general.

President Joe Biden (AP)

The tradition of selecting a designated survivor is believed to have originated during the Cold War era, particularly in the late 1950s. However, according to the National Constitution Center, the federal government did not publicly acknowledge this practice until 1981.

In 2016, Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, shared insights with The Ringer regarding the selection process for the designated survivor. Favreau explained that the choice partly hinges on the prominence of the department’s programs or policies featured in the State of the Union speech.

He noted, “Sometimes the designated survivor is chosen based on, ‘Are their programs or policies going to be a highlight of the State of the Union?’ 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.”

The idea of the designated survivor even inspired a television series called Designated Survivor, which aired on ABC before moving to Netflix for a total of three seasons spanning from 2016 to 2019.

Former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served as the designated survivor during George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2007, discussed his experience with NewsNation ahead of Biden’s speech. He recalled that representatives from every major department and agency were present, equipped with “thick, big binders of protocols and procedures” to advise him in the event that he needed to step into the role of President of the United States unexpectedly.

The designated survivor isn’t always the person who would become president in the event of a disaster during the State of the Union.

In 2010, according to the American Presidency Project, Shaun Donovan, who was serving as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development at the time, was designated as the survivor during President Barack Obama’s address. However, Hillary Clinton, who was then serving as the Secretary of State, had to miss the State of the Union in order to attend a conference in London.

It’s worth noting that Clinton ranked higher than Donovan in the order of presidential succession and would have assumed the presidential office if the need had arisen.

Political enthusiasts have until 9pm ET to speculate on who will be chosen as this year’s designated survivor.

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