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

Most eyes in Capitol Hill will be on Joe Biden’s during the president’s State of the Union address—but one person is guaranteed to miss it.

Known as the “designated survivor,” the role is performed by a member of the president’s office who is required to sit out the State of the Union, which the president gives from the United States Capitol .

Most people in the order of presidential succession find themselves in the same place at the same time during the speech. The designated survivor—who must remain in a different location—is a way to ensure the continuity of power should a calamity strike the Capitol.

Think of it as the US’s version of King Charles and Prince William not being allowed on the same plane.

The identity of tonight’s designated survivor has been revealed as education secretary Miguel Cardona.

Last year’s designated survivor was Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. In 2022, that role was filled by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara has published a list of past designated survivors dating back to 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Sometimes a global pandemic changes things — there was no designated survivor in 2021 because those who would usually have attended the address in person joined it remotely.

The official presidential order of succession includes 18 people: the vice president, the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, 14 secretaries, and the attorney general. The designated survivor is typically chosen among the secretaries and the attorney general.

President Joe Biden (AP)
President Joe Biden (AP)

The practice of picking a designated survivor is thought to date back to the Cold War, specifically the late 1950s—though according to the National Constitution Center, the federal government didn’t publicly acknowledge it until 1981.

Back in 2016, Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, told The Ringer that who gets picked as designated survivor partly depends on how prominently their department features in the State of the Union speech.

“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 website. “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 concept even inspired an ABC series titled Designated Survivor, which aired on ABC then Netflix for a total of three seasons between 2016 and 2019.

Former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was the designated survivor during George W Bush’s State of the Union address in 2007, discussed the experience with NewsNation on Thursday ahead of Biden’s own speech. He recalled that “individuals from every major department and agency” were on hand with “thick, big binders of protocols and procedures” to advise him in case he suddenly had to serve as President of the United States.

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

Back in 2010, according to the American Presidency Project, Shaun Donovan, the then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was the designated survivor during President Barack Obama’s address. But Hilary Clinton, who then served as the Secretary of State, had to miss the State of the Union to attend a conference in London.

She ranked higher than Donovan in the order of presidential succession and would have assumed the presidential office if needed.

Political junkies have until 9pm ET to place their bets on who this year’s designated survivor will be.