By Ian Swanson
President Obama hopes to push the reset button on his second term Tuesday when he delivers the State of the Union address to Congress and a primetime television audience.
Retaining the Senate counts as Obama’s top political goal for the year, and much of his address will be given with that in mind.
The White House is determined to add to Obama’s political legacy after a lost year in which the administration failed to capitalize on the president’s resounding reelection win.
Here are five things to watch for on Tuesday.
1. How hard does Obama attack the GOP?
There is little doubt that Obama will use Tuesday’s election-year address to highlight differences between his party and Republicans.
The White House desperately wants to keep the Senate in their party’s hands, since seeing it fall to Republicans would force it to just play defense for Obama’s last two years in office.
As a result, Obama wants to use the State of the Union to highlight his vision for the nation, and contrast it with his opponents' visions. Expect plenty of moments where Democratic lawmakers rise to their feet while their GOP counterparts sit on their hands.
Yet Obama also needs to work with Republicans if he is to have any hope of adding to his legislative legacy.
Immigration reform remains the administration’s top priority, and it is still possible it can get done before Obama leaves office.
Promising signs, from the administration’s point of view, include Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) hiring of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Rebecca Talent to work on immigration reform, as well as House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) comments this week that he would support immigration reform that provided legal status, though not citizenship, to the nation’s illegal immigrants.
Slam the GOP too hard, and Obama puts at risk any slim chance of working with Republicans on immigration, trade or other issues where they might be able to deal.
Go too light, and Obama would give up a valuable opportunity to contrast the GOP and Democratic brands and to excite his political base.
2. How much will be recycled.
In his 2013 address, Obama called for a vote on gun control legislation and passage of immigration reform legislation. He wanted to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour, and see Congress pass new cybersecurity legislation.
None of that got done, opening the possibility for plenty of recycling in Tuesday’s speech.
Gun control seems the least likely to be a repeat. It’s not an issue that would help Democratic Senate candidates or incumbents running in Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, West Virginia or Montana.
Plenty of recycling can be expected with the other issues, particularly immigration. In fact, it will be curious to see just how much of the speech Obama focuses on changing the nation’s immigration laws, and whether that becomes the centerpiece of the speech.
And Obama, in a sense, is already recycling a theme. He says this will be a “year of action,” which sounds strikingly familiar to an earlier theme of “change can’t wait.”
3. How will Obama handle ObamaCare?
The last year ended brutally for Obama as a victory in the shutdown showdown with Republicans was eclipsed by the healthcare law’s tortuous rollout, which had Democrats for a time wondering if the bad news would end.
Obama will surely talk about the healthcare law in the State of the Union, but how many paragraphs and minutes it gets will be something to watch.
Too little time will lead to headlines about Obama downplaying his signature achievement, but it seems unlikely the president will want his speech to be dominated by healthcare. That sets up a bit of a dilemma for the speech-writing team.
4. What will be this year’s surprise?
State of the Unions are lengthy, laundry-list speeches that draw out an administration’s goals across a broad field of subjects. Much is pre-determined, from the first lady’s guest list to the color of the president’s tie.
Yet there are often surprises and unscripted moments.
Last year, Democrats were surprised by Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage.
In 2004, observers were surprised by something President George W. Bush didn’t mention: a U.S. mission to Mars. In a speech at NASA a week earlier, Bush had laid out the mission as a goal, and it seemed to be quickly abandoned when it wasn’t mentioned at all in the State of the Union a week later.
One of the most memorable moments from Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address was when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was seen shaking his head and mouthing the words “not true” as Obama ripped into the court’s decision unwinding limits on corporate contributions to campaigns.
The unscripted moment cast a light on Obama’s difficult relationship with the court, and became context for much of what followed, including the justice’s 5-4 ruling that ObamaCare was constitutional in 2012.
5. How will Republicans respond?
Republicans have decided the highest-ranking woman in the House GOP leadership will give the GOP response to Obama.
It’s a speech that has a difficult recent history, as several of the ambitious politicians who have delivered it have stumbled in recent years.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2009 performance was panned when he came across as hokey and amateurish, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was lampooned in 2013 for repeatedly drinking bottled water to parch his cottonmouth.
Picking Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) highlights the GOP’s determination to close a gender gap with Democrats that has hurt the party in the last two election cycles.
It’s something at the top of the Republican agenda when it comes to the midterms, too.
Many Republicans blame tone-deaf comments by GOP Senate candidates as costing the party winnable races. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s comments on Thursday about Democrats offering free birth control because they think women can’t control their libidos just stirred the pot further.
McMorris Rodgers’s job will be to present a different GOP face to the nation.