That makes the stakes in Tuesday night's speech "less about the union and more about Barack Obama and his ability to lead," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts the NBC/WSJ poll with Republican counterpart Bill McInturff. What the public wants to hear, Hart added, is"less substantive arguments that psychological reassurance that Obama can get his administration back on track."
The biggest blow Obama suffered in 2013 was the poor rollout of the new federal health exchanges. Some 48 percent of Americans now say that the new health law is a bad idea, outpacing the 34 percent who call it a good idea. Two years ago, the public split evenly at 39 percent.
(Read more: Frustrated Obama's message: I'll go it alone)
More broadly, the public remains in the pessimistic mood that has enveloped the nation throughout Obama's presidency. Just 28 percent call America headed in the right direction, while 63 percent call it "off on the wrong track." A year ago, at 35-57 percent, the mood was slightly less grim.
Just 40 percent of Americans call themselves "optimistic and confident" or "satisfied and hopeful" about the remaining three years of Obama's presidency, while 59 percent call themselves "uncertain and wondering" or "pessimistic and worried." Despite signs that the economy is strengthening, only 28 percent of Americans say they are very or somewhat satisfied with the economy, while 71 percent say there are somewhat or very dissatisfied.
One encouraging note for Obama is that the poll suggests some public support for his economic agenda to curb income inequality. A 37 percent plurality of Americans want the government "more involved" in dealing with the issue, while 21 percent want it less involved. While 81 percent of Americans say the U.S. economy works "very" or "fairly" well for the wealthy, just 33 percent say it works well for women, 22 percent say it works well for the middle class, and 13 percent say it works well for those living in poverty.
A second encouraging sign for Obama is that he and his party are less unpopular than Congress and the Republican Party. Only 13 percent of Americans approve the job Congress is doing, while 81 percent disapprove. While the Democratic Party is rated unfavorably by a 4-point margin, the Republican Party is rated unfavorably by 23 points.
Some 41 percent of Americans predict Obama will "strike the right balance" in dealing with congressional Republicans, while 39 percent see him being "too inflexible." Americans think congressional Republicans will be "too inflexible" with Obama by 2-1 (51 to 25 percent_. By a slender 45-43 percent margin, Americans say they want Democrats rather than Republicans to control Congress after November's midterm elections.
(Read more: Forget the State of the Union, focus on the Fed)