It's kind of a grim tradition even in times of peace, but as President Joe Biden prepares to gather at the Capitol with both chambers of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court for his State of the Union Address, one member of his Cabinet will be asked to sit out in case the worst happens. With the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, that worry seems a little less remote this year. Here's what we know about this year's designated survivor and some recent history on the tradition.
Biden didn't give a State of the Union last year, but rather an "annual message."
Many believe Biden opted out of giving a full-blown State of the Union last year because of the pandemic, but in truth, it's typical for the first such address by an administration to be called an "annual message." Often this first address is attended by the same parties who would attend a State of the Union, but again, due to COVID-19 protocols, many members of the government attended the speech remotely, so it wasn't necessary to appoint a designated survivor.
This year, as COVID-19 infection rates continue to fall, the administration is proceeding with a more business-as-usual SOTU (with testing protocols in place). And that means a designated survivor will be named shortly before the speech.
Typically the White House Chief of Staff selects the designated survivor.
According to a White House official, the designated survivor for the 2022 State of the Union is Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. Whomever is chosen to sit out the address in an undisclosed location must be eligible to become president in the unlikely event that everyone else in the presidential line of succession ahead of them were to pass away or be unable to assume the office.
There hasn't always been a designated survivor, but during the Cold War era 1950s, the constant threat of nuclear war with the U.S.S.R. made it a consideration, since the State of the Union is one of a few times when all the top members of U.S. government can be found in one place. The practice is also used for presidential inaugurations.
Where does the designated survivor go?
The location of a designated survivor is never disclosed, but wherever they are, it's usually a decent distance from the Capitol. Wherever they are holed up, they'll have a full security detail and, of course, the nuclear football.
How is the designated survivor chosen?
There isn't a lot of transparency around the selection process, but it's said to be random. Some believe that only "lower-level" Cabinet secretaries are chosen for the job, but that isn't always the case. For example, in September 2001, then Vice President Dick Cheney was made designated survivor for a Presidential Address to Joint Session of Congress shortly after the September 11 attacks.
In 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft got the nod, and in 2009 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was the designee. Both these Cabinet positions are considered fairly high-level.
The most recent publicly named designated survivor was Donald Trump's Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt. There wasn't a publicly disclosed designee for Biden's inauguration. Normally in the case of a new president taking office, the outgoing administration announced a designated survivor for the event but then again, a lot of traditions were broken during the 2020 inauguration — the most significant being that the outgoing president wasn't in attendance.
Maybe he designated himself?