Five things to watch in SOTU

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President Obama will deliver his penultimate State of the Union address Tuesday night, with the White House envisioning the annual speech as an opportunity to parlay promising economic news into momentum for a populist agenda.

In an unusual move, the White House unveiled most of the major new proposals ahead of time, in an effort to win headlines as the new Republican Congress took control. 

The president is expected to unveil legislation that would overhaul the tax code, providing credits to middle class families funded by hikes on the rich and big banks. And Obama will highlight or propose plans to expand broadband Internet access, offer free tuition to community college and provide guaranteed paid sick and family leave.

{mosads}”Over the next two years, we have the opportunity to not simply continue the momentum that was built last year but really capitalize on some of the long-term trends,” Obama said in a preview video posted Monday by the White House.

But while the speech might lack some of the suspense of past years, there will still be plenty to watch for when the president takes the podium before the joint session of Congress. Here are five things to keep an eye on:

What tone does Obama take?

The White House knows Republicans aren’t likely to embrace his plans for overhauling the tax code or funding expansive new government programs.

But there’s an open question of how aggressively Obama will highlight those differences. Will the president cast his opposition in an unflattering light and challenge the GOP to continue sending up legislation for him to veto on hot-button issues like ObamaCare or the Keystone pipeline?

Alternatively, Obama could talk up possible areas of agreement, like trade authority and cybersecurity. And he could emphasize a willingness to work with Republicans — and congratulate them for their sweeping electoral victories last fall.

Pay close attention to how Obama talks about funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which Republicans are blocking in hopes of rolling back Obama’s executive orders on immigration. Democrats see DHS as an issue where they have popular support, especially in light of the Paris terror attacks earlier this month, and Obama could be tempted to hammer the GOP. 

How does he address race?

Race relations have become an increasingly salient and divisive issue in the aftermath of controversial police shootings last year.

The subsequent assassination of two New York City police officers only deepened difficult national divides and prompted more difficult questions about how to bridge the gap between law enforcement and minority communities.

Obama, who has faced tough questions about his handling of the issue, has invited a Los Angeles Police Department captain who pioneered a program to improve relations with the residents of Watts to sit with the first lady.

But it’s a high wire act for a president who has sought to offer support to both demonstrations over racial disparities in the criminal justice system and law enforcement officers as well.

What does he say about terrorism?

Polls show the nation is skittish about the risk of a terrorist attack in the wake of the targeting of a French satirical newspaper earlier this month, with 57 percent of respondents in a recent CBS News poll calling such an attack at least somewhat likely.

And Obama himself came under fire after opting not to attend a unity march in Paris.

Meanwhile, the persistence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has led to new questions about the White House’s plan to combat the international terrorist network.

The president agreed in a meeting earlier this month with congressional leaders to offer legislation authorizing his military campaign against the terror group, although White House aides stressed it would be written with congressional consultation.

Tuesday’s address will be an opportunity for the president to both signal solidarity with France and provide more guidance on what tools he hopes Congress will provide him to fight radicals.

Does he embrace triangulation?

The president is certain to call on Congress to provide him greater authority to negotiate a pair of trade deals with Europe and Asia over the opposition of some prominent Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Republicans support such a deal, while labor unions and many on the left do not.

Similarly, the president could cite last year’s budget agreement — which passed over the opposition of prominent Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) — as a precedent for bipartisan deal-making.

It will be worth watching to see how congressional Democrats react to his trade pitch. Outward grumbling could suggest that Obama will struggle to keep his party in line, while more quiet disagreement would suggest Democrats are feeling more willing to bargain.

How vigorously does he defend the Iran talks?

The president made headlines for declaring his intention to veto any legislation imposing additional sanctions on Iran during last year’s address. 

But with Republicans now controlling the Senate, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) are again offering language that would set new penalties if Tehran walks away from ongoing nuclear negotiations.

During a press conference last week, Obama asked for patience.

“Congress should be aware that if this diplomatic solution fails, then the risks and likelihood that this ends up being at some point a military confrontation is heightened, and Congress will have to own that as well, and that will have to be debated by the American people,” he said.

Tuesday night’s address is an opportunity for the president to begin making that case to a national audience, even though it could prompt bipartisan jeers in the chamber.

Tags Bob Menendez Elizabeth Warren Harry Reid Mark Kirk State of the Union
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