What to watch for in the State of the Union speech

February 12, 2013

The State of the Union speech is the Super Bowl for political nerds. (Trust us, we know of what we speak.)


AP

While we will know much of what President Obama plans to say and propose -- like bringing home 34,000 troops from Afghanistan -- before he even hits the House floor around 9 p.m., a thousand storylines will be born tonight.

Some of them will have to do with how much time Obama devotes to things like guns and other hot-button issues. Others will center on how Republicans respond to what Obama proposes. Still others will focus on the theatrics -- a nice way of saying circus -- that will happen on Capitol Hill tonight. (Ted Nugent will be there! Tony Bennett will be there!)

(Sidebar: The number of intriguing moments that the State of the Union will almost certainly produce is why we at the Fix strongly believe that the TV networks should cover this address like they do the Super Bowl. We explain how here.)

There are so many things to watch that we thought we would offer a bit of a Cliffs Notes version of what we are keeping an eye on before, during and after the speech.

* How aggressive? And on what?: Since winning re-election last November, the common thread in all of President Obama's public pronouncements -- whether on the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, guns or even immigration -- is his aggressiveness in tone. Gone is the conciliatory rhetoric and the oodles of time spent trying to court Republicans. The result is a more cynical, more hardened but more effective -- politically speaking, at least -- president.

Given that, it's hard to imagine him changing his tone tonight. And, thanks to the odd applause patterns of the speech -- members who don't agree with the president tend to sit on their hands -- you'll be able to tell how the address is being received by partisans.

In terms of his highest priorities, Obama seems most likely to push hardest on the economy and the least hard on guns -- since his party is entirely united behind him on the former and far less so on the latter.

* Any hard truths?: Unlike virtually every other politician sitting in the House chamber and listening to him, President Obama never again needs to worry about winning re-election. That gives him a level of freedom to, at least in theory, not only tell politicians in both parties what they want to hear but what they need to hear.

Obama has been all-too-willing to tell Republicans that their days of refusing any tax increases have to end. But, he has been predictably less interested in slaughtering the sacred cows of his own party. During the grand bargain talks in the summer of 2011, Obama was reported to have put entitlement cuts on the table -- much to the chagrin of his party in Congress.

Does Obama hint at the need to re-open that entitlement conversation tonight? And, if so, do Democrats give him the benefit of the doubt to see what the details hold or do they immediately blanche at the possibility of cuts to Medicare and Social Security?

* The delicate gun dance: While the economy -- and President Obama's proposed responses to it -- will likely dominate the policy prescriptions portion of the speech, it's emotional center will almost certainly be when he turns to guns.

There will be a number of families of the victims of the Newtown, Conn., shootings in the audience as well as former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in the early days of 2011 and has, of late, become a vocal advocate for more common-sense gun laws.

Their presence ensures a somber -- and dare we say it -- bipartisan mood for at least part of President Obama's remarks on guns. But, the underlying political realities of the gun debate remain. Talk to any strategist -- in either party -- and they will tell you that while banning some high-capacity ammunition magazines and/or broadening background checks is a possibility, an assault weapons ban isn't.

Does President Obama go big -- with the assault weapons ban -- knowing that he will eventually be forced to settle for less? Or does he avoid specifics and instead talk in general terms about the need to curb violence, a feel-good moment that will precede a rancorous debate? Or, is there -- with all apologies to Bill Clinton -- a third way?

* The Rubio emergence: Everything is in place for the Florida Senator, who will deliver the GOP response to the State of the Union, to use tonight's speech as a springboard to become the de facto leader of the Republican party. To do that, however, he needs to overcome two facts.

1. These speeches tend to be, at best, a nothing-burger for the responder and, at worst, a punchline for late night comedians. (See Jindal, Bobby.)  It's hard to emerge a winner from the address.

2. The expectations for Rubio -- both in this speech and more generally -- are incredibly high. Heck, he is on the cover of Tim magazine this week being touted as
"The Republican Savior".

Rubio is someone -- as he demonstrated at the Republican National Convention -- of unique political gifts who may be able to overcome those two hurdles and leave tonight as a success. It's no guarantee, however.

* WWRPD (What Will Rand Paul Do)?: The Kentucky senator can play his tea party response one of two ways. He can either offer a) a slightly more hard-edged fiscal conservatism than the one Rubio will put forward or b) go full out with a foreign policy-laden speech that makes clear the real distance between the party establishment and the tea party wings of the GOP.

The first likely won't make much news ala the Herman Cain tea party response in 2012. (Be honest: you forgot the Herminator even gave that speech.)  The second would draw huge amounts of coverage as it would play into an existing storyline -- enflamed by the new super PAC created with Karl Rove's backing -- of a major brouhaha, um, brewing within the party.

That latter narrative would drown out the partys attempt to put its best foot forward with Rubio and create a legitimate counterbalance -- rhetorically and on the policy front -- to the President.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · February 12, 2013