In that respect, Obama is more akin to Clinton, whose 1997 address came after confrontations with Republicans in Congress that shut down the government. "We face no imminent threat, but we do have an enemy," Clinton said. "The enemy of our time is inaction."
With decisions to be made over automatic spending cuts and borrowing limits, Obama will warn again, as a prime-time television audience watches, that the members of Congress before him must first do no harm to a still-fragile economy.
"He hopes to be able to put that in the most stark terms possible for the American people," said one of the senior administration officials.
The past three two-term presidents have delivered this post-reelection State of the Union at times of cold war (Reagan), no war (Clinton) and hot war (Bush).
Obama's tenure falls toward the hot-war end of the spectrum, and he will highlight the end of the Iraq war on his watch and outline the scheduled withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
To the extent that he dwells on foreign policy at all, Obama will probably focus on how the United States' role in the world will serve economic interests at home. It is a State of the Union message not only for an American audience but also for one watching internationally.
"We need a strong economy to lead the world, and leading the world contributes to our strength at home," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Alterman said he is often struck by how closely foreign leaders, diplomats and others follow "the president's back-and-forth with Congress."
"In this globalized world, it matters to people what happens in U.S. politics every day," he said. "And if it seems like we can't connect our intentions to our abilities, that is seen not only as a domestic problem for us but also as a problem for the world."