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Health care law, looming election to frame State of the Union

For President Barack Obama, the timing of the upcoming State of the Union address presents a unique challenge: 2014, after all, will be his last shot at getting back a Democratic House and Senate, which would make it easier for him to pass his agenda. He must use this speech both to defend his signature health care law and begin to clear the path for Democratic wins in 2014.

Obama will deliver the address at 9 p.m. on Tuesday.

“This is an opportunity for him to revise his agenda, put out some new proposals and stress some themes for the upcoming congressional campaign, but also for the rest of his administration,” said John Green, a political science professor with the University of Akron.

“I think that right now that Obama’s biggest challenge is to pull the American people back into an approach for the future,” said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn.

That’ll be tough. Last year, said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to Republican former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Obama “promised the whole kitchen sink.”

“It was everything, and it was largely ignored because most lawmakers knew this wasn’t serious,” he said. He said Obama will have to spend at least part of his 2014 speech defending his health care law. “He’s literally hemorrhaging over it,” he said.

But Bonjean and Green also predict this year’s speech will focus on income inequality, a theme that Obama has frequently addressed during recent months.

“He’s going to play to his base,” predicts Bonjean, who expects Obama to focus on unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage in an effort to motivate Democratic voters in November.

Every member of Congress is up for re-election this year and Republicans currently have a 233-200 majority. There are two vacancies in the House. The Democratic control of the Senate is closer, with a 53-45 majority.

If Obama wants to personally move his poll numbers, the State of the Union isn’t the place to do it, said Gerhard Peters, co-director of the American Presidency Project at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Peters said it’s rare that any president has seen his poll numbers increase as a result of the speech. Instead, presidents use the speech to set an agenda and to invoke the power of the bully pulpit.

“State of the Unions are very important,” said Green, “but they rarely have a big impact on presidential popularity directly.”

Political scientists say most State of the Union addresses during recent years have been largely forgettable, known more for a laundry list of policy goals with questionable potential than for the sweeping policy speeches that move Congress to act.

That’s not to say some weren’t worth remembering: Lyndon Baines Johnson, after all, suggested his “War on Poverty” during his 1964 State of the Union address. More recently, George W. Bush used his 2002 State of the Union address to frame the war on terror, naming Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil.”

The speeches weren’t always so political. While Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered the first State of the Union speeches to Congress, Thomas Jefferson, fearing the speech too closely mirrored England’s speech from the throne, opted instead to send a letter to Congress. Every president followed suit until Woodrow Wilson’s first State of the Union in 1913.

The presidency, Peters said, was largely viewed as a bureaucratic, not a political role for decades, and Wilson’s decision to take the podium reflected a changing view – that the president should define an agenda and be a political leader, not just a bureaucratic one.

Wilson’s immediate successors alternated between giving written messages and addresses to Congress, but when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, he “changed everything forever,” Peters said.

“Now we expect the president to be at the forefront of presidential leadership,” he said. “We expect him to set the agenda.”

Harry Truman was the first to televise his State of the Union address. Lyndon Johnson, meanwhile, moved the speech to prime time in 1965.

Paul Beck, a political science professor at the Ohio State University, said Obama’s speech won’t be to Congress – it’ll be to the American public. “But of course, it’s very hard to get their attention,” he said.

But a recent Quinnipiac Poll found 67 percent of the American public plans to watch the address – not a bad audience for Obama.

What he’ll do with that audience, however, is to be seen.

“What Obama does particularly well is sort of lay out broad themes and articulate broad themes,” Beck said. “What he doesn’t do particularly well – and part of this is his difficulty with the parties – is implement those broad themes and really enact them into law.”

Dan Birdsong, a political science lecturer at the University of Dayton, said Obama’s time to drive the policy debate is running out.

He notes that every one of the policy priorities that Obama will list on Tuesday will be ideas thought of and pushed somewhere in Washington. Rarely, he said, is an idea proposed during a State of the Union belong to a president.

“These are problems people want to do things on,” Birdsong said. “Whether it’s politically feasible during an election year is another matter.”

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