WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2012— -- President Obama has spent the past three months railing against a "do-nothing Congress," and tonight he has the opportunity to deliver his message face to face.
Obama will use his third State of the Union Address to promote what aides describe as a populist economic agenda he's already spent weeks pitching directly to voters, insisting the ideas deserve bipartisan support. Now, in the face of what he's framed as Republican obstruction, Obama will draw an election-year line in the sand.
This is a "make-or-break moment for the middle class and folks trying to work their way into the middle class," Obama said, previewing the address in a video posted on his re-election campaign website and emailed to supporters.
"Because we can go in two directions: One is towards less opportunity and less fairness, or we can fight for where I think we need to go: building an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few."
Obama intends to make tax fairness a central theme to illustrate his point, renewing a push for what he calls the Buffett Rule, a principle for tax reform that would ensure billionaires and millionaires do not pay a lower effective tax rate than members of the middle class.
The White House also plans to put a face on the issue, hosting Debbie Bosanek, aka Warren Buffet's secretary, who famously pays a higher tax rate (as a percentage of her income) than her billionaire boss, in the presidential box for the address.
The class contrast and tax fairness issues, two of Obama's major re-election campaign themes, will get what is arguably it tjeor biggest audience yet with the nationally televised address in prime time. An estimated 43 million viewers watched Obama's State of the Union last year.
But as Obama lays out what he calls a "blueprint" for the county, viewers may find that many of the ideas aren't all that new.
Proposals Obama put forward in 2011, from eliminating subsidies for oil companies, to overhauling No Child Left Behind and the nation's immigration system, remain unresolved. Many of the infrastructure investments the president heralded have not gotten off the ground, while sweeping tax reform to "simplify the system and get rid of the loopholes" is still elusive.
"I think that any State of the Union address which lays out an agenda has to be ambitious. And if you got through a year and you achieved everything on your list, then you probably didn't aim high enough. So I think this president aims high," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
"There are absolutely things that remain undone that need to be done, that he will call on all of us to work together to get done in this address and beyond," he added. "But there is also a fairly comprehensive list of proposals that have been achieved, that I'm sure we'll be discussing as the year goes on."
Among those accomplishments are newly signed trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia that had been in works since the Bush administration, a recently-launched effort to streamline and reorganize the federal agencies, and a new website for how tax dollars are spent -- all mentioned in the address one year ago.
Perhaps the biggest areas of achievement Obama will tout are in foreign and military policy: a successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a targeted international military operation in Libya that helped in the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, and an end to the war in Iraq.
White House aides say the overarching framework of the address, with the sweeping rhetoric and broad policy priorities of State of the Unions past, will "bookend" Obama's "fair shot" speech in Osawatomie, Kan., one month ago.
He will underline a vision of revitalizing American manufacturing, boosting energy production, invigorating skills training programs for American workers and a return to "American values," they say.
But will Republicans buy it?
Claims of optimism for a bipartisan embrace notwithstanding, the short answer is no.
The speech is almost certain not to alter the polarized dynamic in Washington that has stifled the prospect of compromise over major legislative agenda items -- a dynamic Obama once decried and pledged to fix.
There is also simmering anger among congressional Republicans over the recess appointments of Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Board and three others to the National Labor Relations Board. And there's a lingering resentment over the bruising payroll tax cut fight and the rejected Keystone XL oil pipeline, a shovel-ready project Republicans said would create thousands of jobs.
"I read a lot about what the president is going to talk about Tuesday night. And it sounds to me like the same old policies that we've seen," House Speaker John Boehner said Sunday in an interview with Fox News. "More spending, higher taxes, more regulations -- the same policies that haven't helped our economy, they made it worse.
"And if that's what the president is going to talk about Tuesday night, I think it's pathetic," Boehner said.
Obama aides say the president rejects the notion that nothing will get accomplished in Washington in this election year. Still, it's hard to deny that progress will be more difficult now than ever before.
But for Obama, the gridlock itself may matter less than the fact that it plays into the narrative he's crafting for his re-election campaign: a narrative that portrays him as a "warrior for the middle class" in the face of a recalcitrant Congress.
In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama leads Republicans in Congress by a 13-point margin on who voters trust to better protect the middle class, 48 to 35 percent. He also leads by 8 points on who would be better on boosting job creation.
The public by 55-35 percent margin also says unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy is a bigger problem than over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity. That puts Obama on the more popular side of this central debate by 20 points.
Meanwhile, just 13 percent of Americans say they approve of the way Congress is handling its job, its lowest rating in nearly 40 years of polling by ABC News. Obama's job approval rating in the poll stands at 48 percent.
One year ago, Obama spoke to the nation from a united House chamber, where members of both parties crossed the aisle to sit side by side in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
"We will move forward together, or not at all -- for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics," Obama said at the time.
One year later, on many counts, members of both parties have shown they chose to stay put. And it's likely for the next 10 months they still will.