Every presidency, it seems, hits a wall in the first year of a second term. Barack Obama is no exception.
However, the president will try and change that narrative Tuesday night during his annual State of the Union address. For a presidency and agenda that has been seemingly adrift since his 2012 re-election, the stakes are high.
While it’s far too early to consider the president’s second term a failure, a lot is riding on his ability to fire up his base and convince the vast middle that his political agenda and policies will make the remainder of his term work for them.
At the heart of this effort will be what the president has called “the defining challenge of our time”: growing economic inequality. In the speech, Obama is expected to urge lawmakers to take action to help shrink the gap between the rich and poor, and help an increasingly struggling middle class.
The president has said he supports reinstating unemployment insurance for more than one million Americans who have been out of work for a long period of time, along with increased job training and boosting retirement security.
Not only is the issue one the president has put his political weight behind, it is also one Democrats are emphasizing across the country. In fact, lawmakers in at least 30 states are pushing measures to increase minimum wages, hoping to gain state-level victories even as Obama and congressional Democrats focus on raising the federal minimum wage above $7.25 an hour.
Along with fighting inequality, the president is also expected to highlight immigration reform Tuesday night. The issue has been at the center of a long-standing battle with congressional Republicans, who themselves are divided over whether immigration reform is politically possible. Last year, the president called on Congress to send him a comprehensive immigration bill, and in June, the Senate approved a bipartisan plan that featured a 13-year path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants.
Nevertheless, Republicans in the House rejected the plan, tying any change to increased border security and calling for an expanded work visa program.
Nevertheless, administration officials view immigration as the president's best chance to pass a major piece of domestic legislation in his final three years in office, in part because some GOP leaders believe their party must broaden its appeal to Latinos and Asian Americans before the 2016 election.
Of course, State of the Union addresses are often little more than a president’s legislative wish list, and President Obama is expected to touch on a series of other issues, such as guns, climate change, executive action and education, to name a few.
But for many observers, the questions over whether this years speech is successful or not may have less to do with specific policy proposals than whether the president can gain back some political momentum he seems to have lost in the wake of his re-election campaign.
To do so probably has less to do with what he says than how he says it, and whether he can inspire legislators and average citizens again. And, in that regard, President Obama can be said to have along and very successful track record.