State of the Union: What to watch for

at 04:35 PM ET, 01/24/2012

President Obama will deliver his third State of the Union address tonight at 9 p.m., a speech that will set the tone for the Congressional session and presidential campaign to come.


President Obama will deliver his 3rd State of the Union address tonight in Washington. (AFP Photo/Jewel Sama)

The reality of election-year politics are such that the speech will almost certainly be viewed far more through a political lens than a policy one. (Very, very little tends to get done legislatively in a presidential year as both parties position for the November vote.)

We will be flooding the zone with coverage of the State of the Union address — including a live chat on the Fix that will get started at about 8:45 p.m. (Come hang out; it will be infolarious — informative and hilarious all rolled into one!)

In the meantime, we offer our viewer’s guide — a crib sheet of what to watch for in tonight’s speech.

* Fairness, fairly often: If the early previews of President Obama’s speech are indicative of what he will emphasize tonight, expect lots of talk about fairness and equality when it comes to the tax code.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier Tuesday that the president “will be very clear about his vision, will be very clear about his principles ... about fair play and people getting a fair shot, economic security and protecting the middle class.”

Obama and his political team believe that much of the president’s recent gains in polls — a January Washington Post-ABC survey puts him at 48 percent job approval — is due to his relentless efforts to put equality and fairness at the center of the economic debate.

Expect the frame of tonight’s speech then to be this: Obama’s policies are laser-focused on the middle class while the Republican party is looking out for the wealthiest one percent.

* Go big or go home?:State of the Union speeches are typically a chance for the president to go big — outlining his vision not just for the next year but for the country’s future.

Bill Clinton gave us “the era of big government is over”; George W. Bush unveiled “axis of evil”.

Much of Obama’s success over the past few months, however, is far more narrowly focused — pinpointed executive orders on college loans, home mortgages and helping veterans find work.

Of course, Obama is best know for “that vision thing” — his ability to conjure up a sense of common purpose born of his soaring rhetoric. (Worth noting: Republicans have hammered Obama as all rhetoric and no action over these past three years.)

Does Obama go big or stay small in his State of the Union speech? Does he roll out a series of narrow-cast but passable proposals in order to show that he is working to get things done with an inhospitable Congress? Or does he lay out his broadest possible vision for what this country is and should be and, in so doing, challenge Republicans to offer an alternative vision?

* Overtly political?: While everyone knows that the State of the Union — particularly one delivered in an election year — is freighted with politics, the president tends to spend most of his time outlining his positive vision for the country and relatively little disparaging the other side.

(Remember how much guff Obama got for his denunciation of Citizens United during the 2011 State of the Union?)

At issue for Obama is that his political traction in recent months has been heavily dependent on drawing a stark contrast between his approach and that of Congressional Republicans on economic matters.

Does he stick to that, apparently successful, rhetorical device? Or does he scrap it and simply make his positive case with only a passing reference to the intransigence of Republicans?

Either way, Republicans won’t like the speech; House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) said today that the speech would be a “rerun of what we’ve heard over the last three years”.

* Stand up, sit down: One evergreen storyline for State of the Union speeches is the reaction of the assembled Members of Congress.

The speech is regularly interrupted by “spontaneous” standing ovations from the party of the president. Meanwhile, the opposing party typically offers the golf clap or no clap at all — depending on the policy the president is touting.

Partisanship is running as high — if not higher — than at anytime in modern political memory, which means that there will be lots of moments tonight when Republicans sit on their hands while Democrats burst to their feet to cheer on their president.

The media will be all over the story, analyzing what it tells us about the country. (What does it tell us? That the two parties disagree fundamentally about most things.) For the average person, the stand up-sit down game will likely just serve to reinforce their strong sense that Washington is deeply disconnected from the their lives.

YOUR TAKE: What should President Obama say?

What do you think President Obama should talk about during tonight's State of the Union address? Tell us by using the hashtag #Obamashouldsay. We'll post some of your responses right here.


 
Read what others are saying