As a master communicator, Franklin Roosevelt kept to the oral tradition and began actually calling the annual message a State of the Union address. The name stuck. But, with his health declining, Roosevelt issued his final State of the Union in writing in 1945.
Broadening the public outreach even more, Harry Truman was the first president to give the address on television on Jan. 6, 1947. Lyndon Johnson, seeking the largest viewing audience, became the first president to give his State of the Union in the evening, in 1965. Richard Nixon, safely re-elected in November 1972, sent Congress a series of written messages in 1973. A defeated Jimmy Carter gave his final address in writing in 1981.
In 1982, Ronald Reagan, ever the showman, began asking guests to join the first lady in the gallery of the House chamber, and he would introduce them with great fanfare. This custom has persisted ever since. Often, the guests are people who have performed acts of heroism or public service, illustrate a theme the president wants to emphasize, or are popular in their own right and give the president added luster. Guests over the years have included civil rights icon Rosa Parks and baseball greats Sammy Sosa and Hank Aaron,whom Clinton invited, and Lenny Skutnick, who rescued a drowning person from the freezing Potomac River after a plane crashed in 1982 during a snowstorm and was invited by Reagan.
For many years, to ensure the continuity of government in case of a disaster, one cabinet member has stayed away from the speech by prearrangement, so that someone in the line of succession could take over the presidency if a catastrophe occurred. All other cabinet officials, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, senior White House staff, and high-ranking military officials are customarily in the chamber listening to the president deliver the speech.
Another custom has been the dueling reactions in the audience. The president's supporters in Congress will applaud and cheer at various lines, while his opponents will remain silent and sit on their hands, illustrating the intense polarization in Washington.
As for Obama, senior White House officials say that he likes the attention the nationally televised State of the Union provides and that he has ultimate confidence in his eloquence and ability to inspire. He has met repeatedly with key staff members, including senior adviser David Axelrod and chief speechwriter Jon Favreau, to discuss themes. But Obama doesn't leave the actual writing to his aides nearly as much as his predecessors did. As a bestselling author, he believes that he is a better wordsmith than nearly anyone on his staff.
Yet this time, the problems of the country and his own political and public-relations woes might be too severe for one speech, however impressive, to make much difference.