State of the Union: Obama to Make Public Case for Agenda

Democrats and Republicans both likely to be disappointed by Obama's SOTU.

President Barack Obama meets with senior advisers in the Oval Office, Dec. 29, 2012.

President Barack Obama meets with advisers in the Oval Office, Dec. 29, 2012.

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President Barack Obama, in delivering his fifth State of the Union address but first since winning re-election, is expected to lay out an economics-heavy speech Tuesday night. It's been billed by pundits as a counterpunch to his inauguration speech, which highlighted other domestic issues such as gay rights, immigration and climate change.

As speeches go, the president's annual State of the Union is often the most watched, but wonkiest, speech. Speechwriters say it's one of the most challenging to compose given that it aims to inspire Americans at home, lay out the year's legislative agenda to Congress and summarize the country's state of affairs as deemed by the president.

"The nature of these speeches is that there is a lot of business to do so the challenge is to do that and still inspire and tell a good story and move people and move the agenda forward so that it's not just a long speech with a list of policies," says Adam Frankel, a former Obama speechwriter.

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Frankel, similar to what Obama spokesman Jay Carney said during a press briefing Monday, says this year's address will likely flesh out how the president aims to accomplish the goals highlighted in his inaugural address.

"Where the inaugural was sort of a high level framing of themes that are important to the president and the country in terms of his priorities, this will be more policy prescriptive as to how to implement some of those themes and ideals that were laid out," he says.

Carney said the president views the pair of speeches as "two acts in the same play."

Obama's inauguration speech, delivered less than three weeks ago, was labeled a progressive manifesto by pundits and experts say if the president wants to strike any deals with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives he's got to change his tone.

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"To move toward his objectives, he will need the cooperation of many Americans—and their elected representatives—who are not members of his coalition and who cannot be browbeaten into acquiescence," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, in a blog post.

"If Obama's 2013 State of the Union launches a real dialogue with his opposition, it could mark the beginning of a highly successful second term," he added.

No matter what tack Obama takes, he's likely to be criticized – either from the left for being too timid or from the right for being too aggressive. Already, news outlets have reported on Obama administration officials hinting Tuesday's speech will concentrate on job growth and the economy, prompting GOP politicians and consultants to mock the president for yet again claiming to "pivot" to the economy after spending time on other issues.

"After criticism for not focusing on jobs in his inaugural address, Obama promises to pivot back to jobs … again," writes the Republican National Committee in an E-mail blast to reporters.

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Meanwhile Democrats hope to hear Obama build on his progressive agenda, offering a more forceful attack on issues such as climate change, gun control and tax reform that includes eliminating breaks for oil companies and other popular political punching bags.

But Frankel, the former speechwriter, says no matter how the speech is critiqued, Obama still scores points from the opportunity to speak directly to the American public.

"Regardless of how it's spun, by both parties and pundits, when people are actually listening to the president himself and hearing what he has to say, they generally like him and it resonates with them," he says.

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