Four Things to Watch For During the State of the Union

What you need to know about tonight's speech.

February 11, 2013, 3:32 PM

Feb 12, 2013— -- Tonight, President Barack Obama is set to give his State of the Union address. With it, he'll have the opportunity to lay out his agenda and set the tone for his second term in front of members of Congress and the nation.

See Also: Analysis: Obama's Immigration Legacy

What issues will the president discuss? How will he address Republicans? Who will be in the crowd? Here are four things to expect from this evening's speech.

1. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

While gun control and immigration reform have received the most attention early in Obama's second term, the president and his staff have indicated that job creation will be the central theme of the State of the Union.

"I'm going to be talking about making sure that we're focused on job creation here in the United States of America," Obama told a gathering of House Democrats last week.

A White House aide said Monday that the president would specifically address building up the nation's infrastructure, clean-energy and manufacturing sectors, as well as improving job-training programs.

The reason? Obama took office amid one of the worst financial crises in the nation's history. During his first term, he was able to stop the loss of jobs and job growth has resumed at a modest pace. But unemployment still remains high at 7.9 percent (and even higher for Latinos at 9.7 percent). The latest GDP numbers also showed that the U.S. economy shrunk slightly at the end of 2012, although indicators suggest growth could pick back up this year.

The president and Congress must also deal with related issues such as the debt ceiling and the looming "sequester" spending cuts, which some experts say could hurt economic growth if they're allowed to take effect.

The president is expected to announce several new economic initiatives that will include modest amounts of new federal spending offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, according to ABC News' Jon Karl. Then, Obama will take the road to sell his plan, with appearances in Asheville, N.C., Atlanta and Chicago later this week.

Progress on the economic front could dictate whether Obama gains the political capital to deal with other issues like guns, immigration and climate change during his last four years in the White House. And whether he exits office with a strengthening economy or a sputtering one could determine how he will be remembered by future generations.

2. A Repeat of Inaugural Address Issues

If his inaugural address was any indication, Obama is entering his second term with a fiery, unapologetic attitude about achieving important pieces of his agenda.

Obama spoke forcefully about the need for tighter restrictions on gun ownership, immigration reform and climate change, none of which received his full attention during his first four years in office. Expect him to touch on the same areas during the State of the Union. As a White House aide described it, the speeches are "two acts of the same play."

When it comes to these key issues, the partisan chill has begun to thaw on immigration, but Republicans and Democrats generally remain entrenched on guns and climate change. Will Obama take an aggressive tone on those issues in an effort to cajole Republicans and fire up his base? Or will he take a more conciliatory approach and reduce his expectations to curry favor with the other side?

Either way, it could be tough to engender any type of agreement on gun control and climate change during the next four years.

3. The Rubio Factor

The response to the State of the Union is one of the toughest gigs in politics (just ask Bobby Jindal after his flop in 2009). But the GOP has tapped one of its brightest to respond to Obama: Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.)

A Rubio aide said that "the emphasis of [Rubio's] address is the Republican Party's agenda for economic growth and helping people climb into the middle class," and how that's different than the president's agenda. The aide also said that Rubio would touch on the immigration issue, but that it would not be a main focus of the speech. Rubio is writing the speech himself, according to the aide.

Rubio is widely expected to be a top contender for the presidency in 2016, and he's a key member of the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight" crafting an immigration-reform bill. The Cuban-American senator will also be the first Republican to deliver a State of the Union response in English and Spanish. It comes at a time when the GOP is trying to find a way to better reach Latino voters, who voted in droves for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Underscoring the stakes of Rubio's speech, Democrats on Monday "responded" to Rubio even before he delivered his remarks, saying that the senator would deliver more of the same.

"They don't think there is anything wrong with their policies. They think they just need to package them better," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) said of Republicans on a conference call with reporters.

It's safe to say there is a lot riding on Rubio's response to the president. A poor performance wouldn't sink his presidential stock (again, ask Jindal, who is also receiving presidential buzz) but it would not help it either. Yet, a strong performance could solidify his reputation as the GOP's foremost communicator. Either way, this is one of Rubio's biggest moments in the spotlight to date.

4. Who's In the Crowd?

Lawmakers and the president often make a political statement with the guests they choose to invite to the State of the Union, and this year is no different.

Among First Lady Michelle Obama's guests is Alan Aleman, a Las Vegas college student who was granted a temporary reprieve from deportation under President Obama's deferred action program. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) is bringing Gabino Sanchez, a South Carolina undocumented immigrant who is fighting deportation.

House Democrats are also organizing an effort to invite victims of gun violence and their families at a time when Congress is considering gun-control measures. Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro will bring along Carlos Soto, the brother of teacher Vicki Soto, a victim of the Newtown shooting, ABC News reported last week.

Also in attendance will be Cleopatra Cowley. She is the mother of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago student who was murdered only days after performing with her high school band during Obama's inaugural parade.

Republicans aren't looking to be outdone. Texas Rep. Steve Stockman has invited rock musician Ted Nugent, a vocal and controversial opponent of Obama, Politico reported. Stockman himself raised eyebrows last month by raising the specter of impeaching the president if he chooses to enact gun-control measures via executive order.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events