In January 2012, President Obama gave his State of the Union address just as the race for the presidency was beginning to heat up. His awareness of Republican adversaries hanging on his every word came through in the speech. This time around, Obama has much less to lose.
In these new circumstances his rhetoric is likely to change but the topics won't. The economy, immigration, the Middle East; all are likely to come up again. Read on to see how the president might discuss the same six issues differently one year later.
"Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq. Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought – and several thousand gave their lives. We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq."
"…we've begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Ten thousand of our troops have come home. Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer. This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America."
One year later, the war on everyone's mind is in Afghanistan, not Iraq. President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to an Afghanistan war veteran Monday. Tonight he's likely to remind the American people of his plan to have all troops out of Afghanistan by 2014. He will likely reiterate his confidence in transitioning power to Afghan rule.
It's a decision that is unpopular with some who believe withdrawing too soon could jeopardize American gains in the country, but overall support for the war has waned. In an AP-GfK poll released last spring, only about a quarter of Americans said they supported our efforts in Afghanistan. An ABC poll around the same time found two-thirds of Americans said the war had not been worth fighting in the first place.
It's also possible America's overseas conflicts won't factor into the address as much as a year ago. Last year it got a prime spot – President Obama led with his story about welcoming troops at Andrews Air Force Base.
ABC's Jonathan Karl reports a top White House official expects Obama to focus on the economy and jobs this time around.
"Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we're in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world."
Obama's message on energy independence and increasing American innovation is likely to be much the same as it was last year. He is expected to call for a ramping up on both fronts.
Speaking to House Democrats last week, President Obama previewed what he'll say tonight on these issues.
"I'm going to be talking about making sure that we're focused on job creation here in the United States of America. It means that we're focused on education and that every young person is equipped with the skills they need to compete in the 21st century. It means that we've got an energy agenda that can make us less dependent on foreign oil, but also that we're cultivating the kind of clean energy strategy that will maintain our leadership well into the future," he said.
But this year, President Obama is likely to tie these issues into his push for immigration reform. One of the prongs in the Senate's so-called "Gang of 8" plan makes it easier for those with higher degrees in math, science and technologies to achieve legal residency in the United States.
"In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly four million jobs. And we lost another four million before our policies were in full effect. Those are the facts. But so are these. In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s…The state of our Union is getting stronger. And we've come too far to turn back now. As long as I'm President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum."
By all accounts, jobs are likely to play a large role in this year's State of the Union address, too. But don't expect to see the defensive edge that Obama slipped in 10 months ahead of his head-to-head with Mitt Romney. Obama has no reason to be in campaign-mode now.
The president is still likely to tout his successes and predict more to come, but he won't need to warn about turning back or revisit the Bush years quite so thoroughly.
And he won't gloss over the rough road that lies ahead for Americans.
"The bottom line is this, people — we've got a lot of work to do," the president said at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Leesburg, Va. last Thursday. "What I've learned over the last four years is that it won't be smooth; it won't be simple. There will be frustrations. There will be times when you guys are mad at me…. But as long as we keep in mind why we came here in the first place…. I have no doubt that we will continue the extraordinary progress that we've made already."
"Let's also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: The fact that they aren't yet American citizens. Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others came more recently, to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else.
That doesn't make sense.
I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That's why my Administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That's why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office.
The opponents of action are out of excuses. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now."
President Obama is likely to follow the same themes, but this address gives him the opportunity to delve more into specifics.
In his recent call for immigration reform, Obama hit many of the same marks: we have already strengthened our borders; reforming immigration is good for beefing up our science and technology industry; and immigration reform can't wait.
But the difference this year is that President Obama and members of the House and Senate have all put forward plans to change the system in the past month. An issue that was once put very cautiously on the table has begun to take ground on the political battlefield.
Obama can talk about his vision of cracking down on businesses that employ workers illegally and a path to citizenship that includes a background check, back taxes and learning English. He can remind the nation that it started as a group of immigrants, seeking a new life.
While this speech may echo last year's calls on immigration, Obama has the chance to deepen his ideas and defend his vision for reform.
"A year ago, Qadhafi was one of the world's longest-serving dictators – a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone. And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can't be reversed, and that human dignity can't be denied…Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations."
Any mention Obama makes of Syria or Libya will have to acknowledge that the situation there and the countries' relationships with America have only gotten worse in the past year.
The president's 2012 speech implied that with Qadhafi gone, Libya was ripe for democracy and freedom. He predicted Assad would soon step down in Syria. The events of the past year proved him wrong on both accounts.
Neither topic leaves him the opportunity for a politically palatable nugget. But can President Obama get away with leaving both untouched?
How he proceeds on Iran is more predictable. The president's stance has not much changed in the past year. Newly sworn-in Secretary of State John Kerry said just last week that Obama was looking for a diplomatic solution in Iran but would not rule out any options.
"We should start with our tax code. Right now, companies get tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas… if you're an American manufacturer, you should get a bigger tax cut. If you're a high-tech manufacturer, we should double the tax deduction you get for making products here. And if you want to relocate in a community that was hit hard when a factory left town, you should get help financing a new plant, equipment, or training for new workers. My message is simple. It's time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America. Send me these tax reforms, and I'll sign them right away…Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else – like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we're serious about paying down our debt, we can't do both."
With the tax fight largely put to rest in the last-minute fiscal cliff deal of early January, it is unlikely Obama will focus so intricately on the tax code. He won't have to push for wealthier Americans to pay their fair share, because the deal discontinued the Bush tax cuts for those making $450,000 or more. That president made compromises, of course - $450,000 was not his ideal cut off for the cuts - but like it or not, he had to put the issue to bed for the time being.
What will come up again is the question of paying down the debt while retaining a strong military and strong research. This State of the Union address comes just weeks before automatic budget cuts opposed by almost everyone are set to take place. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week that these cuts would "badly damage our national defense and compromise our ability to respond to crises in a dangerous world," if enacted.
Tonight President Obama will likely argue that tough choices will have to be made.
His words to House Democrats last week are telling: "…it won't be smooth; it won't be simple. There will be frustrations. There will be times when you guys are mad at me."
Former President Bill Clinton made a similar statement when referring to entitlement reform in his first State of the Union address after he was reelected.
"I know this is not going to be easy. But I really believe one of the reasons the American people gave me a second term was to take the tough decisions in the next four years that will carry our country through the next 50 years," Clinton said in 1997.
With calls for Medicare reform and a national debt nearing $16.5 trillion, a similar pronouncement from President Obama would seem fitting.