WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2011 -- It's time for a State of the Union address that wouldn't have sounded the same three months ago -- and wouldn't have looked the same three weeks ago.
The midpoint of President Obama's first term is a clear inflection point. It's the first State of the Union the president will deliver with a Republican House speaker over his shoulder, and it comes as political attention starts to flow to the 2012 campaign.
It won't just be the presence of House Speaker John Boehner that will make the address look different from any similar speech in recent memory. Scores of Democrats and Republicans will be sitting next to each other, in a nod to the tragedy in Tucson that sparked a new discussion about the tone of politics.
It's largely to Obama's benefit that the chatter is more likely to be about the seating plan than the new balance of power in Washington. But don't count on it lasting much beyond Tuesday night.
Despite the electoral "shellacking" in November, Obama comes into the speech riding some momentum. His poll numbers have bounced back, and he took some unlikely victories in the lame-duck session of Congress and carried them into a new year that's brought a new tone from the White House.
The White House's latest turn toward job creation -- remembering that there have been similar pivots that haven't had staying power -- includes a series of personnel and policy moves that have been applauded by Republicans.
But the president will also use his speech to make a case for targeted spending in areas including education and economic development -- a tough sell in Congress, and pretty close to a non-starter among the Republicans who just took control of one chamber on Capitol Hill.
"With all due respect to our Democratic friends, any time they want to spend, they call it 'investment,'" Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on "Fox News Sunday." "This is not a time to be looking at pumping up government spending in very many areas."
Obama's efforts to expand "investments" will come up against a wall of GOP opposition. Republican leaders have committed to moving in the opposite direction, and are just as comfortable making their case to the public as the president is making his.
The president is hoping that his work with Republicans over the past weeks and months will give him additional credibility as he plans out the rest of his legislative agenda.
But he's found cooperation with Republicans so far almost always when he moves significantly in their direction. The president has appeared less worried about the Democratic Party base after an election where the party suffered setbacks.
Obama's challenge from here will be how to channel some of his increased support among the public into additional successes that will manifest themselves in the economy. The downturn has lasted too long -- and hurt too many people -- for politicians to win points for effort at this stage.
And with all due respect to the members of Congress who will find new partners Tuesday night, that other new look in the House chamber -- Speaker Boehner's presence next to Vice President Joe Biden -- will have longer-term consequences for the direction of this presidency.