State of the Union: 3 Economic Themes Obama Is Sure to Focus On

what to look for in the state of the union addressIn most years, for most presidents, the State of the Union is something of a chore, an annual address that the chief executive is constitutionally obliged to make to Congress.

But tonight's speech is -- or, at least, could be -- something more. For President Obama, looking ahead to a potentially tough reelection fight, the State of the Union could be a springboard to his last campaign, a moment when he can outline what he has achieved over the past three years and give a glimpse of his vision for the next five. And, for both the president and for the middle class families who will be watching the speech, the central issue of this election will be the economy -- which many see as a sore point for the Obama Presidency. With that in mind, here are three key points that he is likely to hammer home tonight:

Jobs: In a historical sense, the current 8.5% unemployment rate is nothing to crow about, but it represents a significant drop from the staggering 10% high of late 2009. Expect Obama to mention the 3.2 million private sector jobs that have been created in the last two years, the rebirth of the American auto industry, and growth in manufacturing jobs. Obama will likely also address his plans for future job creation in the remainder of 2012 and in a potential second term.

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Income Inequality
: According to a recent Pew study, the majority of Americans view wealth inequality as the biggest dividing line in the U.S. That's a narrative that dovetails nicely with Obama's political philosophy, and it seems likely that the State of the Union will bring up the dangerous gambles taken by the financiers of Wall Street, the outsized bonuses that its workers received, and the legislative remedies that Obama has championed for restructuring the financial system.

Supporting the Middle Class: In a move heavily criticized by Republicans, Obama gave Richard Cordray a recess appointment to lead the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Combined with the restrictions he put on credit card banks in CARD Act, he has built a record for protecting the interests of ordinary consumers. Expect reminders of those actions to be woven into the narrative of his support for America's struggling middle class.

When joblessness is high, U.S. presidents tend to get pink slips -- the most notable recent exception being President Reagan, who managed to secure reelection despite what was then viewed as a daunting 7.2% unemployment rate. By comparison, the 8.5% unemployment rate Obama faces now is astronomical, and creates a mighty hurdle that he will struggle to overcome. Tonight's speech may be one of his best opportunities to convince the voters again he's the right man for the job.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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