President Obama’s sixth State of the Union address may sound a lot like his second way back in 2011. Which means the president has to stand before the public and lay out his agenda for the future while knowing full well that after a horrible showing by the Democrats during the midterms, much of what he is suggesting will likely never reach his desk, let alone the public. Nevertheless, the president is laying out a fairly extensive set of plans for the Tuesday-night speech, and there are a few areas worth noting, if you’re keeping score.
The new policies: President Obama has been traveling around the country over the last few weeks promoting some of his newest policy proposals, most aimed squarely at helping the middle class, including free community college, paid sick leave, more access to broadband technology and closing loopholes in the tax code. The expectation is that he will give more-specific details during the speech about how he plans to pay for all of these changes, and likely he’ll implore Congress’ new Republican majorities to find common ground with him. But more likely than not, President Obama will spend as much time on his old policies as on the new ones.
The legacy: TNT analyst Charles Barkley is known for saying “Father Time is undefeated,” meaning that age, time and mortality will eventually catch up to you. That applies to presidents of the United States as well as to professional athletes. Obama knows that his time is running out as president, and his legacy—from the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to the Affordable Care Act to bank reform—will be under assault, either by the courts or Congress over his last two years. Consequently, expect the president to reiterate his promise that he will not sign any law that undermines his policy legacy and perhaps even to make veiled threats about what could happen if Republicans waste time with such proposals.
Along the same lines, President Obama will say something about the ongoing national protests about police brutality and violence. He has certainly stumbled more often than he has soared on this subject, but the president will not have his racial legacy defined by upheaval and violence without making his own views and policy efforts known to history.
Teeing off campaign season: Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and perhaps Jim Webb are all hovering around the Sunday talk shows and primary states considering a run for president in 2016. President Obama, always conscious of protocol and discretion, will probably not endorse anyone next year, so his last chance to really set the table for Democrats will be in this State of the Union. Expect him to specifically lay out what the Democratic agenda for America is in the next decade, say how the nation can’t afford to go back and hint at the coming election. Note that the first lady’s guests will be a wonderful coalition of men, women and children who resemble the voting bloc that President Obama nurtured to life in 2008. The president will mention these people as a not-so-subtle road map for potential 2016 contenders.
The Republican response: The Grand Old Party’s response to President Obama will be done by Joni Ernst, the newly elected, popular senator from Iowa who knocked off an incumbent Democrat in a hard-fought race. Being the opposing-party respondent to the president has already reached Madden Curse levels: It seems like a great opportunity to raise your political profile, but more often than not, respondents fall into political oblivion. So Ernst, fresh off her upset in November, can take the stage to respond to Obama, and any gaffes or mistakes that she makes won’t be anything she can’t shake off in another six years. Expect her to remain true to Republican themes of personal responsibility and small government, but also to highlight how the GOP is willing to work with President Obama as long as he’s willing to work with them.
The State of the Union is more of a wish list than a menu at this point, partially because of the obstinate nature of Congress and partially because of President Obama’s own lame-duck status. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be key moments when pieces of his legacy, vision and personal strength seep through the pomp and circumstance. The hope is that those moments will shine through more than they have in recent years—because we don’t have many more opportunities for this president to make his case.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.