President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday will serve as his highest-profile attempt to convince Americans he can turn around the economy at the same time he seeks to usher in a new wave of progressive policies on immigration, gun control and climate change.
Free from the constraints of an impending election, the next few months are critical to Obama if he is to meet the lofty expectations supporters have cast on him since entering office. With a small window for action, Democrats desperately hope the president can use his speech to break the logjam in Washington.
"This is the most important speech he is going to give; it's the opening act of his second term and closes the door on his first," said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. "The question is how much he wants to put Republicans on the defensive. Lately, he's focused on issues that make them uncomfortable."
Using his inaugural speech as a springboard, Obama will aggressively tout his progressive blueprint, setting the stage for an inevitable clash with Republicans over the role of government.
"He's going to put more meat on the bones regarding his liberal policy agenda," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. "It's likely he'll call for bipartisanship -- but it will be a hammer wrapped in a cloth of bipartisanship."
White House officials told The Washington Examiner that Obama, like in years past, will primarily focus on job creation and the economy -- and for Congress to sign off on government investments long resisted by Republicans. The president was criticized last month for an inaugural address that championed progressive views, including gay rights and climate change, while remaining vague on economic solutions.
Across-the-board spending cuts, scheduled to kick in on March 1, are looming over the president's remarks before lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and other Washington leaders. Obama will reiterate his demand for a combination of short-term spending reductions and tax increases to push back the so-called sequester for at least a few months.
Republicans on Monday ripped the administration's preview of the speech, saying the economic vision to be espoused by the president on Tuesday was an empty gesture and an attempt to distract from his failed policies.
"What caught [Obama's] attention?" asked Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. "The fact that unemployment continues to hover around 8 percent, GDP contracted by 0.1 percent, consumer confidence continues to plummet or that he even gave up on his own jobs council?"
White House officials said that unlike the inaugural, when Obama framed those domestic issues solely in terms of fairness, he'll argue for their economic merits on Tuesday. The president will also call for increased investments in manufacturing, infrastructure, green-energy technologies and education.
Foreign policy will take a back seat in the speech, even as the intensifying focus on the administration's drone program abroad has fostered a heightened discussion about American activity overseas. Obama will also reiterate his commitment to reducing the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons but won't break any major new policies.
"The speeches are usually not very revealing in terms of foreign policy," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and adviser to six secretaries of state. "He'll talk about the ever-present danger of terrorism; there will be a reference to Afghanistan and the Arab Spring -- maybe Israel -- but I can't imagine much more."