To a television audience in the tens of millions, Obama will home in on jobs, the issue of most importance to the public and to his hopes for a second term. Though war and other concerns bid for attention, the president has chosen to lean heavily on the economy, with far less emphasis on Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism and foreign affairs.
Specifically, Obama will focus on improving the education, innovation and infrastructure of the United States as the way to provide a sounder economic base. He will pair that with calls to reduce the government's debt – now topping a staggering $14 trillion – and reforming government. Those five areas will frame the speech, with sprinklings of fresh proposals.
Yet no matter how ambitious Obama's rhetorical reach, his speech at the halfway point of his term will be viewed in the context of his new political reality.
The midterm elections gave Republicans control of the House and a stronger minority vote in the Senate, meaning he hasn't the option of pushing through changes over strong GOP objections. The contrast between the two parties' visions remains stark, and the debate about where to slash spending, and by how much, will drive much of the debate for the rest of 2011.
As if to underscore that point, Obama's speech will come just hours after the House is to vote on setting spending for the rest of the year at 2008, pre-recession levels. That resolution, largely symbolic, would put Republican lawmakers on record in favor of cutting $100 billion from Obama's budget for the current year as the party promised in last year's campaign.
The atmospherics of the State of the Union, always watched with some fascination as a display of political theater, are expected to be more sober and civil than in recent years.
The speech comes less than three weeks after an assassination attempt against Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. She is recovering remarkably after being shot in the head during a one-man rampage that left six dead. Among those who will sit with first lady Michelle Obama at the president's speech will be the family of a 9-year-old girl who was killed, an aide to Giffords who rushed to help her at the shooting, and trauma surgeons who have treated the wounded lawmaker.
In an attempt at unity following an attack on one of their own, some Democratic and Republican lawmakers will sit together at Obama's speech. Others have dismissed that idea as superficial. The focus on tone comes a year after Obama's rebuke of a Supreme Court decision in his State of the Union speech led Justice Samuel Alito to mouth back, "Not true."
Obama is trying to emphasize economic priorities that can draw both public appeal and enough Republican consideration for at least serious debate.
He will wrap them all under the heading of helping the United States to compete more successfully in the world – a "win the future" rallying cry that Obama's aides hopes will resonate with both workers and business executives and bind the political parties. In fact, the theme of competitiveness has been pushed by many presidents, including Obama.
In this same setting one year ago, he declared: "China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations aren't playing for second place." Obama has spoken consistently about a need for a new direction in America, an agenda of investing in energy, education, research and public works. Republicans say when Obama speaks of investments, he means spending.
Republicans have chosen Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, an emerging voice for the party on behalf of spending cuts, to deliver the televised response to Obama's address. He is planning to promote budget cuts as essential to responsible governing, even choosing to give his comments from the hearing room of the House Budget Committee, which he now chairs.
The president's aides say he will talk about cutting spending, too, although the details are less clear. In the background are the politically explosive recommendations of his bipartisan commission about how to trim the debt. On Social Security alone, ideas include raising the retirement age at which people could receive benefits, reducing those benefits and lowering cost-of-living increases.
In his speech, Obama is expected to mention tax reform, another recommendation from the commission.
But the White House says Obama will not dive deeply into policy or offer a rundown of ideas reading like a laundry list. His goal is for those watching to emerge with more confidence about the economy of the country and more clarity about his vision for it.
It will be a sales job to a skeptical crowd.
In a new Associated Press-GfK poll, more than half of those surveyed disapproved of how Obama has handled the economy, and just 35 percent said it has improved on his watch. Still, the poll revealed a sense of perspective. Three-quarters of those questioned said it is unrealistic to expect noticeable improvements after two years, the length of Obama's tenure. The recession that began before Obama took office erased 7.3 million jobs. On the rebound, the economy produced 1.1 million jobs last year, and economists think that figure will roughly double this year. Yet unemployment, now at 9.4 percent, is likely to stay high. Economists predict the jobless rate is likely to be just under 9 percent by the end of the year.
On Wednesday, Obama was down to fine-tuning the language of his speech. His radio address over the weekend showed where he was headed
"We're living in a new and challenging time, in which technology has made competition easier and fiercer than ever before. Countries around the world are upping their game and giving their workers and companies every advantage possible," the president said. "But that shouldn't discourage us. Because I know we can win that competition."