President Obama faces a big challenge as he tries to jump start his presidency with the State of the Union address Tuesday.
First, there is the matter of interest level, or lack thereof. Only 47 percent of the voters say they are very likely or extremely likely to watch, and 51 percent say they are only somewhat likely or not very likely to tune in, according to the latest George Washington University Battleground Poll.
Forty-two percent say the speech will be extremely important or very important, but 57 percent say it will be only somewhat important or not very important.
People have a good idea what kind of speech they want Obama to give, although they are divided on it, making it tougher for him to meet the public's varied expectations. Fifty-six percent say the nation needs to hear "a list of detailed policy proposals to address our problems," and 27 percent say the country needs to hear "an inspirational speech that will bring us together as a nation." Eight percent say the nation needs to hear both.
Eighty-five percent say it is vitally important for Obama to talk about the economy, followed by 83 percent who say jobs, and 73 percent who say the federal deficit. The poll was conducted by the Republican-oriented Tarrance Group and Democrat-oriented Lake Research Partners.
And there are more negative perceptions for Obama to overcome. The latest Quinnipiac poll finds that 53 percent of voters say the Obama administration is not competent at running the government. Only 40 percent approve of his job performance as president, and 54 percent disapprove.
Obama is expected to use his speech to announce his agenda for 2014. The address is likely to include a rigorous defense of his Affordable Care Act, which the president says will help millions of Americans get affordable health insurance even though there have been many problems with its initial implementation. Obama is also expected to argue for immigration reform, more spending on roads, bridges, sewers and schools to create jobs and improve America's infrastructure, an increase in the minimum wage, an extension of unemployment benefits, and expanding early-childhood education. And he has served notice that he will emphasize a program to reduce income inequality and close the huge gap between the rich and the poor.
But many political strategists and academic observers doubt he can accomplish very much at this point because majority Republicans in the House are adamantly against his agenda. "Sadly, I think, the president's greatest accomplishments are behind him in his first term," Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker told me.
"They are notable accomplishments to be sure: the bailouts [of troubled financial institutions], Dodd-Frank [a law to strengthen regulation of Wall Street], the killing of bin Laden, and, I suppose, the ACA, but the jury is still out on that one although I do think that the Medicaid expansion has been successful, assuming that there will be enough doctors to treat the enrollees. The prospects for future achievement seem dim. ... He is a wiser president but I think a sadder one. While much of his problem comes from Republican intransigence, the bubble of diminishing size that he inhabits is not helping things."
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.