State of the Union will serve as benchmark for Obama’s reelection

President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday will serve as a measuring stick for voters to assess his national vision and begin judging whether he deserves a second term. 

Senior administration officials have told allies in the progressive and labor communities that Obama will shift the focus away from budgets and deficit cutting, which dominated 2011, to job creation and the economy.

The president’s advisors have said Obama will echo a theme he hit last month during a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, and make a strong argument for federal regulation at a time when many Americans see shrinking opportunity for upward economic mobility.

Liberal advocates and labor leaders have pressed Obama and his senior advisors this month to take a stronger stand for legislation and executive action focused on job creation. They want a sequel to the jobs agenda speech he delivered to a joint session of Congress in September. 

Democrats believe that speech marked a turning point in the president’s political standing. Democratic aides point to polls showing Obama gaining in popularity compared to congressional Republicans after presenting a concrete agenda.

GOP opposition to that agenda floundered in December, when Republicans capitulated to Obama’s demand to extend the payroll tax holiday. Democrats saw it as a clear political win.

Obama remains weaker than he was during the first two years of his presidency and political experts say he will have to take a cautious approach to this year’s speech.

Obama was at the low point of his presidency last January after Democrats suffered what he called a “shellacking” at the polls in response to their ambitious regulatory agenda.

“A midterm defeat like that when all of Congress flips is a terrible feeling for the president,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It was the beginning of a period where the entire debate shifted to deficit reduction, nothing he campaigned on.

“The economy has done a little better but he’s not in a much better position,” Zelizer added. “There is a danger in the State of the Union of making a very specific and bold promise you can’t follow through on. I’m sure Obama is thinking of that right now. It makes you look weak.”

Obama picked narrow battles in last year’s State of the Union. Two of his articulated visions turned into the biggest foreign policy achievements of his presidency.

Obama told lawmakers that his administration was putting more pressure on the senior leadership of al Qaeda than at any point in the previous ten years. That emphasis paid off three months later when U.S. special operations forces tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, whose elusive survival marked a major failure of the Bush administration.

The president also signaled his willingness to assist democratic uprisings in the Middle East, well before the Arab spring exploded to topple authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Libya. 

“And tonight, let me be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people,” Obama told assembled lawmakers last year.

Obama’s decision to support a NATO bombing campaign in Libya but hold off on action until members of the Arab League and the United Nations sanctioned it was one of the biggest foreign policy decisions of his presidency. He came under withering criticism from Republicans such as Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMellman: Memories may be beautiful, yet… Schumer to oppose Pompeo as secretary of State Arizona GOP blocked from changing rules on filling McCain's seat MORE (R-Ariz.), who charged Obama waited too long to intervene, and others who charged he violated the War Powers Act.

Obama also made good on his pledge to trim domestic spending, despite a backlash from members of his own party in Congress.

“I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. Now, this would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president,” he said.

The Budget Control Act Obama crafted with congressional leaders in August set domestic discretionary spending at levels well below what he laid out in his budget blueprint.

Obama also called for the consolidation of government, noting “there are 12 different agencies that deal with exports” and “there at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy.”

The president took a significant step toward that goal this month when he unveiled a plan to consolidate six different agencies into one department to promote American competitiveness and exports.

But one grand vision from last year’s speech fell decidedly short: his call for comprehensive immigration reform, which received scant debate in Congress last year.

“Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I’m prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows,” he said.

Congress made no real effort to tackle immigration reform. Even the Dream Act, a bill to grant legal residency under certain conditions to people who came to the country illegally as children, failed to merit serious consideration.

Comprehensive corporate tax reform was another proposal that went nowhere.

“Over the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries…. So tonight, I’m asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years — without adding to the deficit. It can be done,” Obama declared.

Members of Congress’s deficit-reduction supercommittee spent weeks discussing tax reforms that could spur economic growth and generate revenues but stalemated in November.

Other proposals Obama made last year were almost immediately forgotten, such as his call for members of Congress to publicly disclose meetings with lobbyists.

His offer to work with Republicans on medical malpractice reform did not gain any traction either, after Democrats expressed deep skepticism.

Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian, said a rule of thumb on the Hill is that it takes about seven years for a good idea once introduced to become law.

“Just because it doesn’t happen in the year after a president mentions it, doesn’t mean it’s gone forever,” he said.

Ritchie noted that former President Harry S. Truman proposed universal healthcare in a speech sent to Congress in September 1945, a vision that did not become reality until Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act 65 years later.