President Obama’s legacy and the future of his second term hang in the balance in Tuesday’s pivotal State of the Union address.
Obama will step to the podium reeling from a lost year, and with the window for him to exert his influence closing slowly but surely.
The address is intended to lay out the president’s priorities ahead of this year’s midterm elections, which will decide the Senate’s balance of power.
“It’s definitely the biggest stage and the best opportunity he’ll have before the midterms,” added another former senior administration official.
After the midterms, the focus will quickly turn to the race to succeed Obama — forcing the president to share the stage with those hoping to succeed him.
The second official disagreed with the premise that the speech amounted to a do-or-die moment for Obama, however.
“The idea that he can’t do anything in his last two years is misguided,” said the official, who noted that former President Clinton left office with his highest approval ratings and was able to put points on the scoreboard during his last few years in office.
Senior administration officials say the crux of the president’s reboot effort will be drawing and defining a contrast with congressional Republicans by emphasizing a new willingness to act unilaterally. The White House is desperate to distance Obama from an obstinate Congress that has stymied his legislative priorities and left most voters disenchanted with Washington.
“The president is not going to tell the American people that he’s going to wait for Congress,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told CNN on Sunday. “He’s going to move forward in areas like job training, education, manufacturing, on his own to try to restore opportunity for American families.”
Tuesday’s address will focus on how the president can affect economic mobility and inequality — areas that will appeal to his party’s base.
Obama is expected to announce he has secured pledges from some of the nation’s largest employers to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed — a presidential initiative designed to draw contrast with lawmakers who have failed to extend emergency unemployment benefits that lapsed late last year.
White House officials have also said that the president will renew his call to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Democrats on the Hill have suggested that Obama sign an executive order telling government agencies to award preferential treatment to contractors who pay above that wage, and there’s wide speculation that Obama could announce such an initiative in his speech.
The president will also signal a focus on manufacturing in his remarks, with trips to visit a steel plant outside of Pittsburgh and an engine factory near Milwaukee scheduled for Wednesday. Obama is also to visit suburban Maryland and Nashville as part of a post-speech whistle-stop tour.
Obama is also expected to talk about education, aides say; guests in the first lady’s viewing box will include the District of Columbia’s teacher of the year and a teenage boy who became the youngest intern at semiconductor chip maker Intel after attending the White House science fair. Vice President Biden is expected to travel to Rochester, N.Y., later in the week to discuss education and workforce development.
Other guests of the first lady include survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, the fire chief from an Oklahoma town devastated by a tornado, and Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player.
The address comes as Obama is attempting to regain his footing on questions of competence and leadership. A Quinnipiac poll released last week found that a majority of Americans — 53 percent — did not believe the Obama administration was competent at running the government. And a weekend ABC News/Washington Post poll found half the country disapproved of Obama’s handling of his job.
Still, the White House acknowledged it would still need to work with lawmakers to pursue some of its most substantial second-term policy goals.
“This is not an either/or proposition here,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
The second former senior administration official added that Obama won’t provide a knockout punch to Republicans in his address — particularly because he needs to work with lawmakers on legislation including immigration.
“You can’t punch someone in the nose and then ask them out to dinner,” the former senior official said. “I expect he’ll walk a fine line.”
Republicans say the clock might already have run out for Obama — and his intention of working with Congress.
Asked if the speech on Tuesday represented Obama’s last chance to move the needle before lame-duck fatigue sets in, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said that it “may be too late already.”
“The president’s only a lame duck if he decides to be,” Buck said. “But if he plans to announce that he’s done working with Congress, then he’s made that choice.”