Why President Obama is about to deliver his most important State of the Union address

February 8, 2013

In four days, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address, an annual speech before Congress that is arguably the most important one a president is tasked with giving.

And for Obama, this particular speech may end up being the most important State of the Union of his entire presidency.


(Charles Dharapak/AP)

In a nutshell, this is the speech that is best-suited to embody the ideas of Obama’s presidency. Whereas Obama's previous State of the Union speeches have been delivered in the shadow of the previous administration or an upcoming election, and future speeches will be likely be constrained by politics – more on that in a moment – this address comes as Obama has embraced a far-reaching legislative agenda and is far-removed from the beginning and end of his presidency.

To understand why Tuesday's speech is a rare opportunity, it's helpful to take a brief look back at Obama’s previous State of The Union speeches:

* In 2009, Obama addressed a joint session of Congress just weeks after taking office. (While technically not a State of the Union speech, it had the trappings of one.) His message? Recovery from the economic crisis that begun during the previous administration. "The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation," he said. The speech was about Obama's proposals for dealing with the economic issues of the day, but included reminders about where the country had just been.

* In 2010, Obama drove a sort of "unfinished business" message, as he called for Congress to take “another look” at health care reform – which had yet to pass after facing  serious setbacks – and other policies.

* 2011’s speech was a call to “win the future,” though the recent past was hard to forget. Obama was addressing the nation fresh off the sound defeat his party suffered in the GOP wave election that swept Republicans into power at all levels of governance and diminished his political capital.

* 2012’s speech was an election year State of the Union that served as a template for his relection campaign message.

Which bring us to 2013. It’s not about George W. Bush's impact this time, or an upcoming election, or recovering from major setbacks in the last one. Obama is trying to advance his most ambitious legislative agenda since his first year in office. He’s pressing for sweeping new gun control measures and comprehensive immigration reform, which will require robust bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to stand a chance of passage.

And he's doing it on the heels of a reelection victory. The country just doubled down on Obama's agenda, which isn't something the president could have said, even at his peak popularity in early 2009.

Looking ahead, it’s easy to see how Obama'a future State of the Union speeches could easily be less memorable. In 2014, Obama will be addressing Congress in the runup to the midterm elections, so his legislative agenda isn't expected to be nearly as packed. Things simply don’t get done during election years the way they do in off years.

In 2015, Obama will be nearing the end of his presidency, and the power he will have to drive his agenda will likely be weaker than it is right now, if previous midterms are any indication. And in 2016, the race to succeed him will be in full swing, with primaries on both sides that promise to seize the attention of the political world.

All of which means Tuesday is a pretty important day for the president. He’s never really had an opportunity like this -- and he probably won't have one again.

Fixbits:

Sen. Bob Menendez's (D-N.J.) staff distributes talking points to supporters to help them defend him.

Catholic bishops have rejected Obama's contraception coverage proposal.

Vice President Biden will take his gun proposals to Philadelphia.

Obama predicts Nancy Pelosi will be House speaker again, and "soon."

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) says he won't be "bullied" out of the Iowa Senate race.

new poll from Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling -- much like the recent poll from a GOP automated pollster -- shows Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) with solid approval numbers and leading basically all of his potential opponents.

The House ethics committee is investigating Reps. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Bill Owens (D-N.Y.). Schock may have improperly sought a donation for an outside group, while Owens may have taken a trip that was funded by a foreign government, which is against House rules.

A GOP lawmaker in Iowa is trying to define abortion as murder.

Must-reads:

"Brennan defends drone strike policies" -- William Branigin, Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller, Washington Post

"They All Look the Same! A Hill reporter's guide to D.C.'s most indistinguishable politicians" -- Marin Cogan, The New Republic

"Casa de Campo, exclusive Dominican resort, is at the center of Menendez allegations" -- Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post

"How the Gun-Control Movement Got Smart" -- Molly Ball, The Atlantic

"A Personal Quest to Make Guns’ Toll More Visible" -- Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times

"Some States Push Measures to Repel New U.S. Gun Laws" -- Jack Healy, New York Times

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Sean Sullivan | February 7, 2013