With its grand traditions and a prime-time television audience, the State of the Union offers President Barack Obama an opportunity to start fresh after a year in which his legislative agenda stalled, his signature health care law floundered and his approval rating tumbled.
The president has cast 2014 as a “year of action” but has yet to show the public how he'll ensure that that's more than just an empty promise.
Here are just a few of the themes that the president is expected to address tonight:
Income inequality, unemployment
Obama is expected to make the widening income gap between rich and poor a centerpiece of his speech, calling on lawmakers to restore jobless benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans, expand preschool initiatives and boost the federal minimum wage.
The president is expected to defend his signature health care law, sullied by the chaotic website rollout and a broken promise that Americans could keep their insurance plans. Obama is likely to tout that more than 3 million people have successfully signed up.
Federal budget, debt ceiling
The speech comes as another debt ceiling limit looms. A rare bipartisan budget deal in December that broke two years of near-constant budget brinkmanship sparked some optimism, and Obama is expected to call for some congressional compromises.
Obama is also expected to renew his call for Congress to overhaul the nation's patchwork immigration laws. While passage of a comprehensive immigration law would mark a significant achievement for Obama, he's expected to be largely restrained in his public efforts in order to give GOP lawmakers room to maneuver.
The president is also likely to talk about a host of international worries: gains by al-Qaida-allied groups in Iraq, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year, and a rocky start to efforts to broker peace in Syria. And he may call on Congress to give the administration space to negotiate with Iran.
What 'year of action' will look like
At the end of last year, Obama coined the term “year of action” to describe his administration's approach to 2014. Since then, he's been blunt about what that means: using executive action and the presidential bully pulpit to bypass Congress to achieve policy goals. Expect Obama to expand on that theme and be specific about what he's asking Congress to do legislatively and what he intends to do without an OK from the Hill.
Sources: The Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers, New York Times, Bloomberg News, NBC News