President Obama delivers his third State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The nation's only constitutionally mandated speech, this version will have an added ingredient: It is Obama's first major speech in the year in which he's running for re-election. Here's what to look out for.
1. A Focus on Economic Inequality
In a video message to his re-election-campaign supporters last week, President Obama indicated that on Tuesday he will build on themes laid out in his December speech in Kansas: that now is a "make or break" moment for the middle class, requiring economic policies in which everybody pays his or her fair share. It's a message that the Obama campaign has said will also be the crux of his re-election bid.
"In an election year, it's going to be very difficult to get anything done in Washington," says Jeff Shesol, co-founder of the speechwriting and strategy firm West Wing Writers and a former deputy speechwriter in the Clinton White House who led the drafting of two State of the Union addresses. "The most important thing he can do in this speech politically is to establish the dividing line between his worldview and his opponents' worldview."
But while Obama will draw those dividing lines, defending the middle class and arguing for the wealthiest Americans to pay more in taxes, he will steer clear of a divisive tone. Instead he will emphasize a united nation that must pull together in order to restore the economy. "There will certainly be material to satisfy the Democratic base, but the president recognizes, number one, that he's the president of all the people and, number two, he can't win re-election simply by energizing the Democratic base," says Shesol.
2. New Policy Ideas, Whether Congress Likes Them or Not
That said, Obama plans to do more than wax philosophic on income inequality and restoring the middle class. He'll also offer new suggestions for generating economic growth and creating jobs. "We'll be hearing some familiar ideas, but at the same times he'll have new ideas to offer on Tuesday," says Shesol. "Speaker Boehner was on Fox News the other day saying that it would be 'pathetic' for the president to just bring out the same ideas again. I'm sure he will have something new to say in the policy realm."
Although Republicans in Congress have mostly been uninterested in advancing anything on the president's agenda, we shouldn't be so sure that they'll stay that way. "The Congress led by Newt Gingrich in 1995 and 1996 was pretty extreme, and even they wound up concluding that they needed to pass some legislation with Bill Clinton," says Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice and a former director of speechwriting under President Clinton, with four State of the Union addresses under his belt. "Congress is massively unpopular right now, and at a certain point the party leaders have to see that it's in their best interest to pass something."
3. A Possible Surprise?
Most of the surprises in State of the Union addresses, if any, tend to be policy announcements. Waldman hopes that the president will use Tuesday night to talk about reforming the system for democracy, particularly through modernizing voter registration and addressing the increasing role of money in politics. "There is a massive assault going on right now on voting rights all across the country, affecting poor, minority, elderly and youth voters the hardest," Waldman says. "President Obama has not yet put forth an agenda for democracy reform in a meaningful way, and the moment is right for him to do it. If we don't fix our systems of democracy, we're never going to get the policy solutions we want, and it's entirely appropriate for the president to talk about it."
4. A Long, Unmemorable Message (but That Can Be a Good Thing)
For all the buildup and attention surrounding the State of the Union address, at roughly an hour in length and covering a wide swath of policy ground, it is rarely memorable. "That doesn't mean they aren't effective in the moment, though," says Shesol. "I think the president is less interested in getting quoted by a historian 50 years from now than he is in framing the arguments for a policy success story."
Furthermore, polling shows that Americans rather appreciate the comprehensiveness of the State of the Union address. "The pundits always say they're a catastrophe and too long, but then the polls are massively successful, with the number of viewers going up as the hour goes on," says Waldman. "People want to get a report from their president, unmediated, on what's going on, and this is one of the few chances in a year to have that happen."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.