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First Thoughts: What has changed (and what hasn't)

What has changed since Obama’s last State of the Union: The GOP now controls the House, the president has the political momentum, the labor market is headed in the right direction, and the tone (at least temporarily) isn't as harsh… What hasn’t changed: The themes Obama will address tonight, as well as a 9%-plus unemployment rate… Tonight’s State of the Union address takes place at 9:00 pm ET… Watch the re-election message: In his ’03 SOTU, Bush stressed security, while Clinton unveiled his triangulation rhetoric in ’95… Paul Ryan's also in the spotlight… Law, politics, and Chicago’s mayoral race… And don’t forget about the mayoral recall in Omaha.

*** What has changed (and what hasn’t): Many of the themes that President Obama is expected to discuss tonight in his State of the Union address -- the future and competitiveness, job creation, deficit reduction, investments in infrastructure, civility in politics -- aren’t new. In fact, they were parts of the State of the Union speech he delivered a year ago. (One example: “What the American people hope -- what they deserve -- is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences…”) But while tonight’s words might not change much, the political environment certainly has. For starters, Republicans now control the House (so it will be John Boehner, not Nancy Pelosi, standing behind Obama tonight), and they’ve gained additional seats in the Senate, which makes it all but impossible for Democrats to enjoy the same legislative successes they had in ’09 and ’10. 

*** The answer, my friend, is blowing in the political winds: The political winds also have changed. In last year’s State of the Union address, Democrats had just lost the special Senate election in Massachusetts days earlier, which ended their filibuster-proof majority in that chamber, threatened health care’s final passage, and gave the GOP considerable momentum heading into the midterms. Now? It’s Obama with the political momentum, as his approval rating sits at 53% in the new NBC/WSJ poll (compared with Bill Clinton’s 45% and George W. Bush’s 54% at this same juncture). Conversely, Republicans -- in power in Congress for just a couple of weeks -- have seen their favorable rating go from a net positive to a net negative, and they're viewed as too inflexible in dealing with Obama. And the political mood seemed to have an impact on 2010 Obama, as he was a tad defensive on health care and took after the Supreme Court on Citizens United which, perhaps, led to the most memorable aspect of that State of the Union -- the reaction from Justices Alito and Roberts. It’s a reminder that even in a planned event like the SOTU, the unexpected can overshadow the expected.

*** It’s the economy, stupid: Then there’s the economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report issued before the 2010 State of the Union showed the economy had lost 109,000 jobs the month before and 4.7 million jobs for all of ’09. Now? The last report showed the economy gained 103,000 jobs last month and 1.1 million jobs for all of 2010. Still, the overall unemployment hasn’t changed significantly: When Obama spoke last year, it was at 9.9%; now it’s 9.4%. Indeed, even though the labor market is getting better instead of worse, we’ll probably hear Obama say something similar to this line from a year ago: “One in 10 Americans still cannot find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Home values have declined. Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard. And for those who’d already known poverty, life has become that much harder.”

*** Raising Arizona: And then there’s the tone. A year ago, while we didn’t see a member of Congress yell, “You lie!” to the president at the State of the Union, the atmosphere was pretty rowdy, with some GOP members waving their own health-care outlines. But after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- in addition to the others who were either killed or wounded earlier this month in Tucson -- the tone is likely to be much different than it was last year. The biggest example: The Democrats and Republicans who plan to sit together of sitting on one side or the other. On “TODAY,” NBC’s Savannah Guthrie reported that there will be an empty chair in Giffords’ honor tonight, and some members are planning to wear ribbons. What’s more, the first lady’s box will include Giffords’ doctor, the parents of the slain Christina Taylor-Green and the intern Daniel Hernandez.

*** The re-election message: Another thing to watch tonight: The overall theme of Obama’s address is likely to be a key component of his re-election campaign. In 2003, George W. Bush began his State of the Union talking about bipartisanship, the economy, Social Security, and Medicare. But then he pivoted to what became a staple of his ’04 campaign: "Our war against terror is a contest of will in which perseverance is power. In the ruins of two towers, at the western wall of the Pentagon, on a field in Pennsylvania, this nation made a pledge, and we renew that pledge tonight: Whatever the duration of this struggle and whatever the difficulties, we will not permit the triumph of violence in the affairs of men; free people will set the course of history." (There was also this line, too: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.")

*** Foreshadowing Bush’s security message in ’04 and Clinton’s triangulation in ’96: And here was Bill Clinton in his ’95 State of the Union. He was contrite after his party’s midterm shellacking. “In this effort I am frank to say that I have made my mistakes, and I have learned again the importance of humility in all human endeavor.” And then he pivoted to the language of triangulation. “I think we all agree that we have to change the way the government works. Let's make it smaller, less costly, and smarter; leaner, not meaner." Also: "Our job here is to expand opportunity, not bureaucracy, to empower people to make the most of their own lives, and to enhance our security here at home and abroad.” And: "So let this be the year we end welfare as we know it. But also let this be the year that we are all able to stop using this issue to divide America." Don't expect Obama to be this blunt on "mistakes."

*** Under wraps: As for "news" out of the SOTU, the White House has kept this speech more under wraps than the last three speeches the president has delivered in the House chamber. Is this a result of the new more disciplined Daley/Plouffe regime? Perhaps…

*** Ryan in the spotlight: Delivering the GOP’s State of the Union response will be Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee. Per a House GOP leadership aide, Ryan “will make clear in his address that Washington’s spending binge is hampering job creation and piling debt on our children and grandchildren.” The aide also says that Ryan will draw a line in the sand on the debt ceiling. “While the Obama Administration has asked Congress to approve an increase in the debt limit, Ryan will make clear that spending cuts and spending reforms must come first, a point that GOP leaders in both the House and Senate have also made.” The congressman will deliver his response from the House Budget Committee’s hearing room. Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann will give a SOTU response sponsored by the Tea Party Express, an event that is not playing well with House GOP leaders, like Eric Cantor, who bluntly wondered aloud yesterday at a pen-and-pad briefing why the press is giving Bachmann so much attention.

*** The law, politics, and Chicago’s mayoral race: Moving from Washington to the electoral confusion in Chicago’s mayoral race, we have this question: How much was an appellate panel’s decision yesterday to throw front-runner Rahm Emanuel off the ballot a legal decision, and how much of it is hardball Chicago politics? To us, this seems to come down to the letter of the law (that a candidate must physically reside in Chicago a year before the contest) versus the spirit of the law (that you’re a resident if you’re paying taxes there, voting there, and owning a home there while temporarily working for the White House). In any event, unless Emanuel’s team is granted a stay, the Chicago Board of Elections says it’s moving ahead and printing ballots WITHOUT Emanuel’s name on them. "We're going to press with one less candidate for mayor," Langdon Neal, the chairman of Chicago’s Board of Election Commissioners said, per NBC’s John Yang. Ballots have to be ready for the start of early voting one week from today, Jan. 31. Bottom line: Rahm's candidacy is in big trouble. Can it be saved by Republicans on the IL Supreme Court who might fear a more liberal mayor?

*** Total Recall -- in Omaha: While we’re all focused on the State of the Union, as well as what’s happening in Chicago, don’t lose sight of this story: Residents of Omaha, NE are voting today on whether to recall their elected mayor, Democrat Jim Suttle. Recall advocates, per the AP, have cited “‘excessive taxes, broken promises and union deals that cost taxpayers millions and threaten Omaha's economic future.’ But Suttle says he has turned the city's finances around, eliminating a projected $12.4 million shortfall in last year's budget to end 2010 with a $3.3 million surplus.” This Omaha recall isn't scandal based; it’s simply a way to channel voter anger over budget issues in the city. It's just the type of thing to could get politically contagious. A little reminder: In 2003, California voters recalled their governor, and the man who replaced him ended up having lower poll numbers and a bigger budget deficit than the man he replaced.

*** 2012 watch: Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are in Iowa, addressing the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association… Tim Pawlenty’s in New Hampshire… Sarah Palin speaks before a hunting group in Reno, NV.

Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 28 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 287 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 377 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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