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What Obama Hopes To Change With His State of the Union Speech

Rick Newman

When President Obama delivers his fourth annual address to Congress, he'll no doubt exploit the prime-time exposure to tick off a loooooooooong list of accomplishments from his first term. Then he'll recite another lengthy list: the things he hopes to achieve in the future. But he won't mention the biggest thing he wants his speech to do: Help him get re-elected in November.

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As with Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004, Obama will use his election-year State of the Union speech to make his case for a second term. He has a lot of work to do. No modern president has been re-elected with the unemployment rate as high as it is now. Obama's approval rating, meanwhile, has been mired in the mid 40s, a level that's as likely to lead to defeat as to victory. Many voters--especially independents--say they have no clear idea of what Obama would do if re-elected.

To change that, Obama intends to unveil a fresh blueprint for "an America built to last," with a strong emphasis on education, innovation, creating more high-quality jobs and making working Americans feel more optimistic about the future. Obama has talked about many of these things before, but he's likely to freshen the packaging and toss in a few new proposals meant to entice independent voters. Here are some of the themes likely to emerge from Obama's speech--and resurface on the stump:

A "fair shot" for the middle class. Obama has been road-testing this theme since early December, when he gave a speech in Kansas calling for "rebuilding this economy based on fair play, a fair shot, and a fair share." The president is obviously tapping into deep discontent among millions of Americans who feel their living standards are eroding, while the privileged minority at the top of the income chain thrives. In general, Obama is likely to spend the next 10 months calling for new government programs that empower ordinary people with new skills and give small businesses new tools to succeed.

The odds Obama will deliver: Modest. It's extremely unlikely Congress will pass any major reforms before the elections in November, but there could be agreement on a few small-scale programs, such as some of those outlined below.

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Higher taxes on the wealthy. The "fair share" part of Obama's plan basically means higher taxes for individuals who earn $200,000 or more and for families with incomes above $250,000. Obama also favors higher rates on the kind of investment income that accounts for the bulk of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's take-home pay, and is typically taxed at just 15 percent.

Odds he'll deliver: Low. Taxes will be a hot-button issue in the campaign, but Congress almost certainly won't do anything to change current tax rates until after the election. But then it will get interesting, since the Bush-era tax cuts are due to expire at the end of this year. That will leave momentous tax decisions to a lame-duck Congress, with major input from whoever wins the White House in November.

More training and education. Obama has called education a "national mission" and said American workers need a raft of new skills to compete in the "innovation economy." Specific proposals could include new job-training programs to help the unemployed develop high-tech manufacturing skills, more government spending on basic science and research, and more federal aid to local school districts.

Odds he'll deliver: Limited. Some Republicans in Congress support new job-training requirements linked to federal unemployment benefits, so there's a chance Congress could establish some new training programs this year. As for more spending on education and science, Obama got nowhere with similar proposals last year, with Republicans and even some Democrats skeptical of more spending that will inflate the national debt. There's no reason for that to change.

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A boost for small businesses. Obama has already called for temporary tax breaks and other measures to encourage hiring by small businesses. He may redouble those efforts, with a specific focus on manufacturing, a sector Obama says he wants to reinvigorate.

Odds he'll deliver: Limited. Again, there's weak support in Congress for any measures that would add to the national debt. That might change if Obama suggests corresponding cuts in other programs, which is possible.

Help for distressed homeowners. There have been roughly half a dozen efforts so far to aid homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages or at risk of foreclosure--usually, with underwhelming results. But Obama may decide it's time to do more. Options include expanded federal guarantees that would help more borrowers refinance and lower their mortgage payments, or new programs that might allow people who can't pay their mortgages to live in the same home as renters.

Odds he'll deliver: Reasonable. The White House doesn't need Congressional approval to change some of the lending guidelines practiced by housing-finance agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which could help homeowners by lowering the threshold for refinancing. The risk for Obama is that there might be a backlash against "bailouts" for homeowners who are viewed as reckless. With the housing bust now in its sixth year, Obama may decide the risk is worth it.

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More energy jobs. Obama has hinted that he'll propose a more aggressive energy policy, which might include accelerated approval of drilling permits or expanded access to offshore drilling areas. Green energy, of course, is a pet project of Obama's, but with the recent Solyndra controversy, he may limit new green-energy proposals to natural gas, which has become abundant and cheap.

Odds he'll deliver: Reasonable. An energy boom is underway in America, with improving technology leading to a surge in oil and natural-gas production. Obama could make a few executive decisions that don't require Congressional approval but would allow him to take credit for the creation of new energy jobs that would probably happen no matter what.

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More infrastructure jobs. Obama seems determined to keep pushing for federal spending to hire teachers, cops and firefighters, rebuild schools, and modernize the nation's network of roads, bridges, railroads and broadband pipes.

Odds he'll deliver: Low. This sort of traditional stimulus spending has fallen out of favor, and Congress took a pass when Obama made similar proposals last year. Voters did little to raise the pressure on their elected officials. If the economy continues its gradual improvement, the case for adding to the national debt, no matter how worthy the stimulus program, will only get weaker. The same trend, however, may boost Obama's re-election odds--and render many of his campaign talking points unnecessary.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success , to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman

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