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Posted at 7:28 AM ET, 01/25/2011

5 things to watch for in the State of the Union

By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake

President Obama will deliver the second State of the Union speech of his term tonight at 9 p.m., a highly anticipated address that functions as the informal kickoff of the new congressional term.

The speech, which Obama has been working on for months, will be relentlessly dissected on cable television and elsewhere over the next few days.

But what should you look for during the speech? Our viewer's guide -- five things to keep an eye on as Obama speaks -- is below. And don't forget: We will have wall-to-wall coverage of the State of the Union all day and night. Start at the Post's SOTU page, and don't forget to check this space later tonight for a Fix live-blog!

1. How civil?: The backdrop of tonight's speech is the attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D). It's led to a symbolic move toward civility with a number of members of opposite parties pledging to sit with one another for the speech. That seat-swapping -- and the near-certain mention of Giffords by Obama during the speech -- should ensure that we have no repeats of South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's (R) infamous/famous "You lie" moment in 2009. But a simple political truth remains: The two parties have broad disagreements about many of the policies Obama is likely to advocate for tonight. Will Republicans politely applaud? Sit on their hands? And how will their reaction be interpreted by an audience that might be watching those sorts of reactions more closely following the Giffords shooting?

2. Economic exuberance?: The economy will be topic No. 1 (and 2 and 3) for Obama tonight. But he walks a fine line between touting the moves his administration has made to avert financial disaster and put the economy on the right track and empathizing with average Americans who might still not be feeling that things are getting better in their own lives. Obama's numbers have bumped up nicely on the question of "understands the problems of people like you" in recent national polls, and there's no better opportunity for him to build on that sentiment than the State of the Union with millions and millions of potential voters watching. Winning on the economy -- convincing people that things are not only getting better, but that those improvements are directly attributable to policy decisions he and his administration have made -- is absolutely essential to Obama's reelection hopes in 2012. He begins making that case in earnest tonight.

3. The Past vs. the future: The early signals being sent by the White House indicate that Obama will focus heavily on the future of America in the speech -- how to make the country more competitive in the global marketplace, spur innovation and that sort of thing. But, the speech comes less than three months after the president's party received a "shellacking" (in his words) at the ballot box. The result of the November election is that Obama will be speaking to an audience populated with lots more Republicans -- 63 in the House, six in the Senate, to be exact. There's little indication Obama will bow in any major way to the new GOP majority in the House and, to the extent he looks backward, it probably will be to defend the health-care law that House Republicans voted to repeal last week.

4. Poetry vs. prose: Obama's rhetorical preference is to "go big" in major speeches -- reaching beyond the moment and seeking to place himself and the country in the broad sweep of history. He did that masterfully in his address at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting earlier this month, using the tragedy as a jumping-off point to argue for an increased focus on what unites us, not what divides us, as a country. State of the Union speeches tend to be quickly forgotten because of a format that typically dissolves into a laundry list of policy proposals -- most of which will never see the light of day (or the floor of the House). Typically, the more poetry -- rhetorically speaking -- Obama can wedge into a speech, the better received the speech is.

5. The Republican response: The very fact that there will be two GOP responses -- an official one by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and a tea party-flavored one by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann -- means that it's worth staying tuned in after Obama finishes. (CNN announced plans Monday night to carry the Ryan and Bachmann's speeches in their entirety!) The minority party response has been a bit of a mixed blessing in recent times -- think Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2009 -- and Ryan is the latest rising star to take on the challenge. His task is made even more difficult by the fact that Bachmann will be giving a response of her own -- one likely to highlight the divide that remains between the GOP establishment and the tea party crowd. It's a near-certainty that Bachmann's speech will get more attention than Ryan's; how does the GOP establishment respond to that reality (if at all)?

Foley out for Lieberman seat: Former ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley (R) favors a 2014 rematch with Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) rather than a 2012 run at retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman's (I-Conn.) seat.

Foley said he would rather focus his efforts on running for governor again and would leave the Senate race to other Republicans, including 2010 GOP Senate nominee Linda McMahon.

"If Linda runs, I think she'll be a good candidate," Foley said. "She's done it before, and she's fresh. If she doesn't, there are others who have expressed an interest."

Foley's decision is significant because, for a brief time, he was in the Senate race with McMahon last cycle -- when Gov. Jodi Rell (R) announced she wouldn't run for reelection, Foley jumped over to the governor's race -- and he emerged as perhaps the strongest GOP candidate in the state while his party was getting swept.

Having lost to Malloy by just 1 percent of the vote has Foley champing at the bit for another shot. And for a Northeastern Republican, a governor's race is generally a more winnable race, even if he will have to run against an incumbent.

Meanwhile, the decision leaves Republicans without perhaps their top candidate for the Senate race. McMahon lost by 11 points to now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), though her self-funding ability is nice to have in a race that is a lower-tier target for Republicans.

Rep. Chris Murphy and former secretary of state Susan Bysiewicz are running on the Democratic side, and either would likely be favored in the general election.


Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D), who exited office very unpopular, is taking a job at the University of California at Berkeley and says she won't return to politics.

In a Web video launching his candidacy for the seat he lost in 2006, former senator George Allen (R-Va.) said it's "time for an American comeback."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) is going to South Carolina.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) will speak to the Renewable Fuels Association in Iowa today.

Florida Republicans are challenging a constitutional amendment that passed in the November elections that would prevent the Republican state legislature from gerrymandering new districts.


"Rep. Ryan is Republican Point Man" -- Janet Hook, Wall Street Journal

"10 Years Later, Murray is Leading a Changed DSCC" -- Kyle Trygstad, CQ-Roll Call

"Pawlenty embraces underdog mantle in New Hampshire" -- Peter Hamby, CNN

"When Talk Radio Talks, Congress Listens" -- Christina Bellantoni, CQ-Roll Call

"Rep. Rivera facing ethics issues" -- John Bresnahan and Marin Cogan, Politico

By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake  | January 25, 2011; 7:28 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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