Obama is observing the tradition with a three-day tour that will take him to Asheville, N.C., on Wednesday, Decatur, Ga., on Thursday and hometown Chicago on Friday.
The trips are an attempt to enlist public support in pressuring Congress on a range of issues Obama is pushing—instead of embarking more directly on new partisan fights with lawmakers.
The annual address wasn't always the big deal it is today.
The tradition of delivering it to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber began with Woodrow Wilson, president from 1913-1921. But even then, it was usually delivered around noon. President Lyndon Johnson moved it to prime time.
"That changed the whole nature of the speech. Its audience now was the American people," says presidential scholar Stephen Hess. "(Senate Republican leader) Everett Dirksen said, if he can do it, we want it for the opposition, too. The three networks at the time said, 'Sure, why not?'"
Since presidents play to a crowd of millions with the annual speech, it seems natural for them to hit the hustings the next day to pound home their message. And it won't be hard for the White House to build audiences receptive to Obama's agenda on jobs, the budget, gun violence, immigration and climate change.
Of course, leaving Washington to present your case directly to the public doesn't always work.
Bill Clinton's travels to promote his health care proposals went nowhere.
And George W. Bush's travel after his 2005 State of the Union to rally support for his plan for private Social Security accounts to allow younger workers to put some of their payroll taxes in stocks or other investments flopped.
It didn't even garner much support among GOP lawmakers.
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