A bruised Barack Obama hopes to use the annual State of the Union address on Tuesday night to persuade a jaded America that he still has what it takes to realise his faltering social and economic agenda and to push back any notion of his prematurely becoming a lame-duck.
This, even so, will not be the Obama of one year ago who stood before members of Congress energised by his re-election victory and brandishing a broad programme of initiatives, almost none of which have since been enacted, whether it was immigration reform, serious action on climate change, a revamping of the tax code or new gun laws.
The address, traditionally watched by millions of Americans at home, will this time feature a president battered by 12 months of political misfortune and sliding poll numbers. He has been stymied both by Congress, where Republicans control the House of Representatives, but also by missteps of his own, none more spectacular than the botched roll-out last October of the government’s new healthcare programme.
It will of course come with all the requisite and ritualised pomp and bombast, including waves of Democrat-led applause and tributes by the President to special guests seated in the gallery with first lady Michelle Obama, who are expected to include two survivors from last year’s Boston bombing as well as Jason Collins, a basketball celebrity who last year became the first active male athlete on a major US sports team to come out as gay.
It may, meanwhile, be the President’s last chance to set the contours of his long-term legacy before his star inevitably begins to be eclipsed by the approach of 2016 White House race. At the same time, a degree of rhetorical restraint will be in order because this November’s mid-term congressional elections are already around the corner and his party’s prospects, particularly when it comes to holding on to its majority in the US Senate, are dicey.
Aides hint that President Obama will dedicate long passages to one simple message that should be good for Democrats: closing the chasm between the very rich and everyone else and returning a ladder to the poor and the middle class to get themselves back into daylight. Specifically, that will include a renewal of benefits for the long-term unemployed, which has been blocked by Republicans, and an increase in the federal minimum wage.
Also expected are calls for action on energy policy, helping students pay for college fees and new federal investments in the country’s ageing infrastructure. But above all the speech will be about the middle class. "What you’re going to hear from the President on Tuesday night is a series of concrete, practical, specific proposals on how we restore opportunity," top aide Dan Pfeiffer said at the weekend. "There will be some legislative proposals, but also a number of actions he can take on his own."
Indeed, more striking as he takes the podium may be the warning Obama is expected to deliver to Congress that he means to move forward with his agenda now with or without its help. That will mean either enacting change by way of executive order without congressional approval – not something that will be possible on some of what he wants – or taking his case beyond the Washington bubble to the rest of the country, including to corporate America.
"The President will say to the country he’s not going to wait. He has a pen, and he has a phone, and he’s going to use those to move the ball forward to create opportunity," Mr Pfeiffer said. The president’s spokesman, Jay Carney, similarly added that the president "sees this as a year of action, to work with Congress where he can and to bypass Congress where necessary. To lift folks who want to come up into the middle class".
Thus, aides say, he will unveil a deal already struck with some of the country’s largest employers, including Xerox, AT&T, Lockheed Martin and Procter & Gamble, under which they have undertaken not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed when hiring new labour. And to drive home the point, Obama will spend the rest of this week touting his programme on a tour of states including Wisconsin, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
Even before he has spoken, Republicans, who will also be given post-address airtime for the traditional rebuttal, are pushing back, characterising his expected calls for action on income inequality as a declaration of war on the rich.
He "has a lot of explaining to do," said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. "If all he has to offer is more of the same, or if he refuses to acknowledge that his own policies have failed to work, the President is simply doing what many failed leaders have done before him: trying to set one group of Americans against another group of Americans. We don’t need more class warfare, and we don’t need more interference from Washington."
It is not unusual for second-term presidents to be starved of legislative breakthroughs from Congress, particularly if government is divided between the parties. There have some glimmers of hope, however, for movement on immigration reform. The Republican leadership is expected to come out shortly with their preferred prescriptions for change, including legalising the status of at least some of the 11 million people already in the US without proper standing if not actually offering them eventual citizenship as Democrats have preferred.
Watch President Obama's State of the Union address