A president's first State of the Union speech following re-election has historically been his most ambitious — other than, perhaps, his first. Since it follows an inaugural address, it also gives a president a rare pair of opportunities, just weeks apart, to present the essence of a second-term program.
Many, though, have proved forgettable — more prose than poetry, and more ambition than practicality in actually presenting achievable goals. This may be one of Obama's last meaningful formal addresses on his domestic agenda, given that a second-term president's political power at home tends to ebb sharply after midterm elections.
Most first-of-the-second-term States of the Union also share an essential frame of reference, one that emphasizes first-term successes and the unfinished agenda ahead. As President Ronald Reagan noted in his 1985 address, which followed a first term defined by a slow economic recovery: "We have begun well. But it's only a beginning."
Beyond that basic frame, however, post reelection State of the Union speeches vary based on whether a president wants to signal a grand ambition — as Reagan did on tax policy in 1985 and George W. Bush did two decades later in pledging Social Security changes — or a litany of policies such as those that defined Bill Clinton's long-winded 1997 address.
White House officials view Obama's back-to-back speeches as essentially one — a thematic prologue, delivered on Inauguration Day, followed by a prescriptive second chapter detailing the president's view of the country's economy.
Obama's approach, as described by several senior administration officials, will flip the emphasis of his second inaugural address.
In that speech, Obama argued stridently for social equality through an expansion of gay rights, citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and the moral imperative of reducing gun violence and confronting climate change. White House officials acknowledge that he may have overshadowed his underlying message of economic fairness as a result.