5 things to expect from Obama's State of the Union

January 28, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

Inequality, Obamacare, and immigration will likely make a presence in the President's speech tonight. But the real question is can he restore confidence in his governance?

By Nina Easton, senior editor

140127162639-obama-620xaFORTUNE -- Tonight at 9 p.m. EST, after a protocol-laden procession, President Obama will step to the podium at the front the House chamber and offer his opinion on the State of the Union to a joint session of Congress. But this year, the White House makes clear that President Obama has a very different audience in mind -- "you, the American people," as chief of staff Denis McDonough noted in a video last week.

With near Bush-level approval ratings, an emboldened GOP House and a 50-50 chance of losing the Senate to Republicans next fall, the Obama presidency faces the very real prospect of irrelevancy. So this focus on "you the American people" is less idealistic gush than political threat: The President is warning that he will simply bypass Congress and use his executive powers to regain traction after a lost year -- hoping along the way to rekindle his lost love affair with a majority of voters.

But if this is his real target audience, it's worth taking a brain scan of the American public (at least that portion he has a prayer of winning back). Just 14 months after his cruise to reelection, the President is finding it's not a pretty picture.

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Here's a five-point snapshot:

  • Even as the President makes the case that the economy is finding its legs, American workers are feeling wobbly. Nearly six years after the economy's collapse -- and five since the official end of the Great Recession -- three-quarters of Americans still feel like the country is in recession, based on their families' experience, according to a Fox News poll released last week. And an AP-GfK poll finds that 70% think unemployment will go higher or stay the same. With that much pessimism floating around, raising the minimum wage (a likely proposal tonight) isn't enough; a nervous middle class wants to see dramatic moves to produce jobs all the way up the income ladder.
  • As the unhappy inheritor of an economic crisis, Obama sometimes acts like he wants to change the subject. (His second inaugural address was instead devoted to favorite liberal shout-outs like climate change and gay marriage.) When he does talk about the need to generate more robust growth, he wraps it in the cloak of economic "fairness." Now he has declared that income inequality is the "defining issue of our time." But this is not a fixation of most Americans. Sure, taxing the rich polls well. But people are more worried about economic security -- and mobility -- for themselves and their kids than the millions that celebrities and CEOs are making. When asked to name their No. 1 economic issue, Americans rank inequality near the bottom, behind jobs and even the federal deficit.
  • Most Americans like Obama. As a politician, his cool charm wears pretty well. That said, they don't have much confidence in his ability to make things better -- and doubts about his honesty and decisiveness after the disastrous Obamacare rollout persist. In the AP poll, less than a third of respondents rated Obama as an above-average chief executive, and the ABC/Washington Post poll found that only 37% of Americans -- down from 61% five years ago -- have confidence in Obama's ability to make the right decisions for the country's future. Those are big doubts when an overwhelming majority of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, swamping a small surge of optimism on Election Day 2012. Does that mean it's all downhill from here, or can Obama restore confidence in his governance?
  • Speaking of governance, Obamacare is, of course, at the core of the President's falling ratings and doubts about his presidential skills. No doubt he will take this primetime TV opportunity to point out that 2.1 million have signed up on state and federal exchanges. But the political damage has been severe. Fifty-nine percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of Obamacare, according to this week's ABC/Washington Post poll. And the law itself, passed without a single Republican vote, remains unpopular in some polls, and simply divisive in others. Tonight Democrats will try to recast the Obamacare narrative by trotting out constituents who are enjoying the newfound security of insurance coverage. But the Republicans will counter with their own faces -- of chronically ill patients facing insurance cancellations because of the law. This dueling narrative will play out against a host of continued problems with the system: a costly imbalance of sick vs. healthy patients signing up, the potential of security breaches threatening personal data, and the possibility of more insurance policy cancellations to come.
  • There is one ambitious reform that Americans on both sides of the aisle support -- immigration reform. Even House Republicans, many of whom are worried about appearing as the "party of no," are making noises about moving forward with a plan to address the 12 million undocumented workers living here. If Obama wants to avoid another lost year like 2013, and regain some credibility as a strong leader, immigration reform is a promising path.

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Even with all this grim news, there is one bright spot for Obama: He's a lot more popular than his Republican nemeses on Capitol Hill. GOP lawmakers received a whopping 80% disapproval rating in this week's ABC/Washington Post poll.

Hard to see how they could fall much lower. The President, on the other hand ...

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About This Author
Nina Easton
Nina Easton

An award-winning author, columnist, and TV commentator, Nina Easton offers insights at the intersection of economics and politics. For six years she has been a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday and Special Report, and has appeared on NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation, and PBS's Washington Week in Review and Charlie Rose. Easton is the author of the critically acclaimed Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendancy. Prior to joining Fortune, she won a number of national awards as a Los Angeles Times writer, and later served as the Boston Globe's deputy bureau chief in Washington. She is a native Californian and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.

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