WASHINGTON – After staking out an unapologetically progressive vision in his inaugural address last month, President Barack Obama is expected to use his State of the Union speech on Tuesday to focus on middle-class jobs and fill in the details of his second-term agenda.
Here are a number of things to watch for in a speech that is expected to be viewed by tens of millions of people. Expect Obama to:
- Talk about what he is going to do about jobs and growth, perhaps shifting his focus to strengthening the economy from a preoccupation with deficits and the debt.
The Congressional Budget Office projects growth at 1.4 percent in 2013 and unemployment not to fall below 7.5 percent. Unless the economy gets stronger, Obama's approval ratings will likely weaken along with his ability to get legislation passed.
"The potential success of his second term is hugely dependent on the rate at which the economy grows," said Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist with the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.
Obama will lay out plans for new investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, clean energy and education in the speech, a senior administration official said on Saturday.
- Argue that an energy policy that aims to expand alternatives to fossil fuels need not be seen as merely a do-good, tree-hugger policy but as a job-creating, industry-building, infrastructure-strengthening endeavor. Look for him to remind lawmakers and the viewing public that concerns about climate change and extreme weather will not go away if ignored.
- Scold Republicans about engineering crisis after crisis over the budget. He will argue that the prospects of debt defaults and government shutdowns or draconian tax hikes and spending cuts every few months are part of what is holding the economy back.
- Assert with confidence that immigration reform is an idea whose time has come, and that it has support from business and organized labor alike. Done right, putting 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship will help lift middle-class wages, not undercut them, he is likely to argue.
Left unsaid will be the message that Latinos overwhelming supported him in November and that if Republicans hope to get right with that growing voter bloc, they cannot get in the way of immigration reform.
"If I was giving the speech, I'd hit immigration last because that's an issue that seems to have real bipartisan possibilities," said Sidney Milkis, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
- Make an impassioned plea for gun control. Most Americans favor some sort of restraints; expect him to argue that a school shooting massacre like the one in Newtown, Connecticut, should end once and for all the stranglehold the gun lobby has on common-sense measures to limit gun violence.
A teacher who survived the shooting rampage that killed 20 students and six educators at the Newtown school is expected to be in the House of Representatives chamber for the speech, the guest of her congresswoman.
- Explain that as the nation gets used to living side by side with gays and lesbians, it has become clear that community deserves equal rights under the law.
Obama has cast that message in terms of the nation's history of grudging acceptance of the rights of women and minorities. He may also be looking over the heads of Congress on this theme to his core backers, whom he wants to mobilize to support his legislative agenda and to regain a Democratic majority in the House in 2014.
- Promise that America will continue to play a leading role in world affairs, and say that peace in the Middle East is vitally important to U.S. interests. He is likely to vow to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to keep that nation under pressure.
- Make the case that it is time for the United States to step back from Afghanistan as it did from Iraq, but that it will retain a strong military that will use advanced technology to protect the United States from threats by militants.
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney)