Jobs, re-election frame Obama's State of the Union
Obama is expected to offer new proposals to make college more affordable, to ease the housing crisis still slowing the economy, and to boost American manufacturing, according to people familiar with the speech. He will also promote unfinished parts of his jobs plan, including the extension of a payroll tax cut soon to expire.
In essence, this State of the Union is not so much about the year ahead as the four more years Obama wants after that.
Obama's splash of policy proposals will be less important than what he hopes they all add up to: a narrative of renewed American security. Obama will try to politically position himself as the one leading that fight for the middle class, with an overt call for help from Congress, and an implicit request for a second term from the public.
The timing comes as the nation is split about Obama's overall job performance. More people than not disapprove of his handling of the economy, he is showing real vulnerability among the independent voters who could swing the election, and most Americans think the country is on the wrong track.
So his mission will be to show leadership and ideas on topics that matter to people: jobs, housing, college, retirement security.
The White House sees the speech as a clear chance to outline a vision for re-election, yet carefully, without turning a national tradition into an overt campaign event.
On national security, Obama will defend his foreign policies but is not expected to announce new ones on Iran or any other front. He will ask the nation to reflect with him on a momentous year of change, including the end of the war in Iraq, the killing of al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring protests of peoples clamoring for freedom.
But it will all be secondary to jobs at home.
In a winter season of politics dominated by his Republican competition, Obama will have a grand stage to himself, in a window between Republican primaries. He will try to use the moment to refocus the debate as he sees it: where the country has come, and where he wants to take it.
In doing so, Obama will come before a divided Congress with a burst of hope because the economy — by far the most important issue to voters — is showing life.
The unemployment rate is still at a troubling 8.5 percent, but at its lowest rate in nearly three years. Consumer confidence is up. Obama will use that as a springboard.
The president will try to draw a contrast of economic visions with Republicans, both his antagonists in Congress and the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.
The foundation of Obama's speech is the one he gave in Kansas last month, when he declared that the middle class was a make-or-break moment and railed against "you're on your own" economics of the Republican Party. His theme then was about a government that ensures people get a fair shot to succeed.
That speech spelled out the values of Obama's election-year agenda. The State of the Union will be the blueprint to back it up.
Despite low expectations for legislation this year, Obama will offer short-term ideas that would require action from Congress. His travel schedule following his speech, to politically important regions, offers clues to the policies he was expected to unveil.
Both Phoenix and Las Vegas have been hard hit by foreclosures. Denver is where Obama outlined ways of helping college students deal with mounting school loan debt. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Detroit are home to a number of manufacturers. And Michigan was a major beneficiary of the president's decision to provide billions in federal loans to rescue General Motors and Chrysler in 2009.
For now, the main looming to-do item is an extension of a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, both due to expire by March. An Obama spokesman called that the "last must-do item of business" on Obama's congressional agenda, but the White House insists the president will make the case for more this year.
If anything, Republicans say Obama has made the chances of cooperation even dimmer just over the last several days. He enraged Republicans by installing a consumer watchdog chief by going around the Senate, which had blocked him, and then rejected a major oil pipeline project the GOP has embraced.
Obama is likely, once again, to offer ways in which a broken Washington must work together. Yet that theme seems but a dream given the gridlock he has been unable to change.
The State of the Union atmosphere offered a bit of comity last year, following the assassination attempt against Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. And yet 2011 was a year of utter dysfunction in Washington, with the partisanship getting so bad that the government nearly defaulted as the world watched in embarrassment.
The address remains an old-fashioned moment of national attention; 43 million people watched it on TV last year. The White House website will offer a live stream of the speech, promising graphics and other bonuses for people who watch it there, plus a panel of administration officials afterward with questions coming in through Twitter and Facebook.
AP deputy director of polling Jennifer Agiesta and Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.