But the president won't really be speaking to anyone in the House chamber this time, or advocating for a long list of legislative initiatives. This time around, he will be speaking to history.
Like those of his two immediate predecessors, both two-term presidents, Obama is likely to use his final State of the Union address as a recap of his accomplishments -- a first rough draft of his legacy -- and more subtly, as a case for continuing what he has started by electing a Democrat to succeed him.
Defining your own legacy is not easy. George W. Bush gave his final address battling a low approval rating and mired in two wars. He used the speech to appeal to Congress for an economic stimulus package; nine months later, the country plunged into the worst recession in generations. American troops wouldn’t withdraw from Iraq for almost four more years. He would leave office deeply unpopular.
Bill Clinton looked back at the economic prosperity of the late 1990s, saying, “Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis or so few external threats.” But his last address to Congress also amounted to a call for continuation of his direction by electing Vice President Al Gore -- seated right behind him -- as his successor. (Gore, keenly aware that it had not been long since Clinton had fought off impeachment, never embraced the role of Clinton Continued.)
George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, didn’t know his 1992 State of the Union address was his last – he expected he’d be back the next year, extended to a second term. In that sense, he didn’t have a chance to address history in quite the same way. His speech, coming on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union, focused largely on the economy and a recovery from the recession of the early 1990s.
Obama's legacy will no doubt be fought over for decades. But on Tuesday night, he will throw the first real punch.