State of the Union: 8 Things Obama Won't Say, But Might Want To

PHOTO: In this Jan. 17, 2014, photo, President Barack Obama Talks about National Security Agency surveillance at the Justice Department in Washington.PlayASSOCIATED PRESS
WATCH Obama Lays Out the His Past Three Years in the State of the Union Speech

Sometimes there are things you want to say but just can't.

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When President Obama delivers his fifth State of the Union address tonight, there are a number of hot-button headlines you almost certainly won't hear. The list of what goes unsaid in the speech, even though Obama might have wanted to say it, can be as revealing as the presidential progress report itself.

As we wait to see how it shakes out, here's our look at eight things Obama likely won't say, and what they could tell us about his presidency in 2014:

1. Forget about big hope, big change.

"The president of the United States cannot remake our society, and that's definitely a good thing." Those are not words of solace from a Tea Party Republican. They belong to President Obama, who seemed to downplay expectations of his influence in an interview this month with the New Yorker's David Remnick.

But don't expect Obama to make a similar declaration from the dais tonight. White House aides say the president doesn't discount his ability to remake the country over the next three years, even if the odds of another sweeping legislative achievement on the order of health care probably isn't in the cards.

Tonight, Obama will aim to play up the art of the possible, signaling that "Hope and Change" is still alive, aides say, if only through increased reliance on smaller-impact executive actions.

"We're talking about reinvigorating that idea that the president can use the unique power of the office to make things happen," said a West Wing adviser helping Obama draft the speech.

2. Hike taxes on the rich.

Obama won re-election in 2012 in part by casting himself as a "warrior for the middle class" determined to tackle income inequality. Recommitting to that theme will be a big part of his address and agenda for the year ahead, his aides say.

But even though Obama campaigned on making the wealthy "pay their fair share" and using the money to fund "investments" in the middle class, don't expect him to call for a hike in tax rates tonight.

"We already got that," said one aide, referring to the 2011 budget deal that allowed Bush-era tax cuts on higher-income earners to expire. "But there are things we should do for revenue through closing loopholes."

Wary of criticism that he's engaged in class warfare, look for the president to emphasize "economic opportunity" instead of the more politically charged buzz words "income inequality."

"What the president has talked about throughout his entire career ... is the problem of shrinking opportunity for the middle class," senior Obama adviser Dan Pfieffer told CNN on Sunday. "So, what he's going to talk about in this speech is how we deal with the problem, restore opportunity for all Americans."

3. 'Yes We Did!' (or, Si Hicimos!) on immigration reform.

By Obama's own account, the failure to enact immigration reform was the biggest disappointment of 2013. "It is obviously frustrating," he told reporters at an end-of-year press conference.

Exactly one year ago today, Obama trumpeted a "year of action" on immigration during his first post-inaugural trip outside the Beltway. But then, congressional momentum stalled. No White House bill was put forward. The political impasse continues into 2014.

There are signs the gridlock could ease, however, as House Republican leaders plan to roll out an immigration framework early this year. Obama is expected to encourage bipartisan progress on reform measures during his address tonight.

"There is some reason to be cautiously optimistic about immigration reform eventually clearing both Houses and getting to the president's desk, not because we've come up with better ways to urge Congress to take action or urge the House to take action," said White House press secretary Jay Carney, "but because the economic benefits are so apparent."

4. Thank you, Edward Snowden.

Debate over National Security Agency surveillance and a plan to overhaul some intelligence gathering programs have become defining issues of President Obama's early second term. The White House says the president always intended to conduct a review of the programs. But those in his inner circle say the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden gave him a big nudge.

"The president told us on the review group that he intended to do this review anyway, and that it wasn't Snowden that had triggered it," said Obama intelligence review panelist Richard Clarke. "I don't know if I believe that fully or not. It may have been his intention to do a review, but I'm quite sure the Snowden revelations made it more timely."

Many of the changes Obama recently proposed will require congressional help – something that he could explicitly raise in tonight's address. But don't expect the president to also show Snowden some gratitude. Obama says he strongly disapproves of Snowden's tactics, even if his leaks appear to have single-handedly spurred Obama to do what he apparently always wanted.

5. Shame on the GOP for the shutdown.

Oh, how quickly memories fade. Remember the shutdown? And all the heat it generated on the GOP? Beset by sagging poll numbers and an onslaught of attacks on Obamacare, Obama might wish he could turn back the clock and use his bully pulpit tonight to help.

Only 37 percent of Americans say they're confident that Obama can make the right decisions for the country's future – down from 61 percent five years ago – according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Tonight, Obama won't be looking back, his closest advisers say. Instead, he plans to take the high road, praising the year-end bipartisan budget deal and calling once again for common ground. "I don't think it's confrontational. It's let's find areas to work together," Pfieffer said Sunday.

It won't be all pleasantries, however. There is yet another fight ahead over the need to raise the debt limit -- something Obama says he won't negotiate. Expect an increase to the debt limit to be a rare State of the Union demand.

6. Obamacare is on target!

Not only has the administration missed its targets for Obamacare sign-ups (they're about a million behind pace), but the law is already proving problematic for Democrats seeking re-election in 2014.

Six in 10 Americans still don't think the website is working properly, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. Fifty-four percent see the site glitches as a sign of broader problems in the law itself.

Obama will tonight no doubt hail the popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act that took effect this year, such as the ban on discrimination for pre-existing conditions and the requirement that preventive care services be covered at no additional cost. But one thing he can't say is whether the law is on target with its primary goal: expanding coverage and containing costs.

We still don't know critical details about the 3 million Americans who have signed up for Obamacare so far: How many enrollees have actually paid for their plans and have coverage? How many of those are healthy? And how many were previously uninsured? The answers to those questions are critical to determining whether the law is working.

7. It's time to decriminalize pot.

Obama won't utter those words tonight, of course. But never before has an American president come so close to saying them.

"I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol," Obama said of marijuana in the interview with the New Yorker's Remnick. He told ABC's Barbara Walters in 2012 that the feds have "bigger fish to fry" than to prosecute individual pot junkies. Last August, he moved to exempt low-level, nonviolent drug users from stiff mandatory sentences – a shift that was hailed on both sides of the aisle.

Still, Obama told Remnick that pot is "not something I encourage, and I've told my daughters it's a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy." On a list of Obama policy priorities for 2014, weed decriminalization wouldn't seem to rank very high.

That said, Obama has left the door open to further leniency toward pot, unleashing a torrent of new public pressure.

"Taking action on this issue is long overdue," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who wants Obama to remove marijuana from the federal list of harmful drugs. An online petition calling for the same has more than 40,000 signatures.

8. I canceled the congressional picnic ... and I don't regret it.

After a bruising year when few of Obama's 2013 priorities got done, it was perhaps fitting that this year's White House congressional picnic was canceled. It was first postponed in June, then later scrapped amid brinksmanship over Syria. Some lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed disappointment and exasperation. But the president probably wasn't shedding any tears.

It's no secret that schmoozing with members of Congress is not one of Obama's favorite pastimes, and addressing all of them in the House chamber likely isn't either. It's why White House aides have been framing Obama's State of the Union address tonight as more a message aimed directly at viewers at home than anyone else.

"The State of the Union is not just a conversation with Congress, but a conversation with you, the American people," said Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough in a video posted to the White House website.