Politics

Obama expected to foreshadow campaign in State of the Union address tonight

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President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi looking on, delivers his first State of the Union address in 2010. Tonight, he'll deliver his third speech. (Photo by White House Photographer Pete Souza

When President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address tonight, he'll have a captive audience that he can use to launch his own presidential campaign.

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As the Republicans continue to battle amongst themselves to see who will become to GOP challenger to Obama, Obama's preparing for his last State of the Union address before the November elections. It'll be his chance to lay out his goals for the future, as well as explain why he hasn't accomplished all he set out to do last January, in his previous address.

The address begins at 9 p.m. eastern (8 central) and will be carried on all the major broadcast networks and cable news channels. About half of Americans are expected to watch the address.

Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said the president realizes this is his opportunity to lay out the case for why he deserves to be re-elected.

"To contrast with what his opponents are saying in their primaries and caucuses," Zelizer said.

And it can have a major impact. Zelizer said Ronald Reagan's 1984 address won a landmark, with huge impact on his re-election.

"Reagan had spent the first four years being very bellicose, and using aggressive language against the Soviet Union," Zelizer said. "By 1983 and 1984, he's mellowed. He's worried about the potential for nuclear war with the Soviets, and his advisers were telling him you have to show you're genuinely interested in peace, or you're going to scare away voters."

So, with the State of the Union address, Reagan pivoted to a different tone. And it worked. In November, he won perhaps the biggest landslide victory since George Washington was re-elected president. Of course Reagan also had an advantage in, that by 1984, the United States had really started to pull out of the recession, leading Reagan to make the theme of his campaign, "Are you better off today, than you were in 1980?".

"That will obviously be a little more difficult for President Obama tonight, but it was a very important part of that 1984 address," Zelizer said.

Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, struggled to resonate with voters in his 1980 State of the Union address — acknowledging that his years in officer were difficult ones for Americans.

"That speech comes after the Soviets have invaded Afghanistan, posing a severe blow to Jimmy Carter's efforts for detente," Zelizer said. "There are hostages being held in Iran. We've gone through a second oil crisis and the economy is still in shambles. Everything has gone badly and Jimmy Carter, in Carter-like fashion, is brutally honest. And it's a crisis-laden State of the Union address, where, at best, you see a Commander-in-Chief, but at worst you see a President who is facing an onslaught of problems and doesn't really give a solution."

And Zelizer said that State of the Union really benefitted Reagan vastly more than it did Carter.

For Obama, just as with every president seeking re-election, Zelizer said voters will be looking for what comes next. They have to keep the focus on moving forward, he said.

"That's part of the challenge for the president in difficult times, to show the country where he can take them," Zelizer said.

And that's the big advantage that a sitting president has, over his challengers. Most Americans will watch this address, while Republican will struggle to generate that sort of audience for some time. But Zelizer said it's practically impossible to separate politics from government in any year, let alone an election year.

"The final State of the Union address is impossible to shield it from the political environment in which it takes place," Zelizer said. "All the presidents do it."