About 9 p.m. on Tuesday, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and the cabinet will enter the Capitol for the State of the Union address—everyone except one cabinet member, that is. That cabinet member is known as the “designated survivor.”
The 2023 “designated survivor” hasn’t been announced yet. But, this person is chosen to continue to lead the government in the event of a catastrophic event at the Capitol. (Some members of Congress also hang back to keep the legislative branch functioning if there was an attack.)
“The designated survivor has most frequently been a Secretary from the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce (though other executive-branch department heads have been designated, as well),” according to the Congressional Research Service. In the current presidential cabinet, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has previously been a designated survivor, during President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union. In 2022, it was Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
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While the nation’s first President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union in 1790, the history of designated survivors is much more recent. The practice is believed to date back to the Cold War and fears about a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union. The American Presidency Project at the University of California-Santa Barbara keeps a list of “designated survivors” from 1984 to 2022. Notably, in 2021, when many people were working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no need for a “designated survivor” because cabinet members were watching the address from their homes or offices.
The premise of the “designated survivor” has become the stuff of TV drama, with an ABC and Netflix show of the same name premised on the HUD secretary, played by Kiefer Sutherland, becoming president after an explosion at the Capitol. But the reality, former designated survivors say, is a bit more mundane.
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For the people who have served in this role, sometimes the State of the Union is a relaxed evening. Jim Nicholson, former Veterans Affairs Secretary, told NBC News that during President George W. Bush’s 2006 State of the Union, he was taken by helicopter to a “command center-like room” where he enjoyed a “delicious” steak dinner. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley described dining out with his brother and some friends during the 1998 State of the Union—then once their accompanying Secret Service agents got word that the President was back in the White House, he was left to fend for himself. “The cars leave and I have to get a cab and go home!” Daley told ABC 7 Eyewitness News. Asked how he felt about not becoming President that night, he responded, “Thank God! Probably for the country. Thank God in a lot of ways for the country!”
Other “designated survivors” agree that the responsibility weighed heavily on them. In a 2017 essay for Politico, former agriculture secretary Dan Glickman reminisced about the terrifying experience of being a “designated survivor” in 1997 during President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union address. Whisked away to his daughter’s New York apartment, he was joined by top military brass and Secret Service staffers, including a military officer carrying the 45-pound “nuclear football”—a black, leather-encased aluminum briefcase that would be used to authenticate the person ordering a nuclear strike. The football, formally known as the “president’s emergency satchel,” also contains options for different strike packages—to hit, say, Moscow, Pyongyang, or a much wider set of targets.”
After inputting an authorization code, an order would be sent in nanoseconds to the Pentagon, and missiles would launch within minutes. Glickman admitted, “I sometimes wonder if I would have had the courage to give the order.”