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Five things to watch in key Obama speech

President Barack Obama will mount the podium in the chamber of the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening to make his fifth State of the Union speech. While White House advisers have been playing down what might be expected from the president's address, FT writers in Washington have picked out five areas to watch.

(Read more: Frustrated Obama's message: I'll go it alone)

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1. Politics . . . can Obama boost a White House whose power is wilting?

The White House has made no secret of the fact that this State of the Union speech will be short on big initiatives and long on "executive actions" – policies pushed by presidential decree, rather than going through Congress.

That this will enrage Republicans matters little. The White House figures that many Republicans will find any reason to get angry. The issue is whether Mr Obama's actions will be effective, and re-energise a White House whose power is visibly wilting. More than anything, the administration fears its measures will be dismissed as "small bore" and irrelevant.

More from the Financial Times:
A poor score on State of the Union goals
Obama tones down ambitions
Low hopes for Obama's year of action

Watch for initiatives on climate change, an area where Mr Obama has an eye on his legacy, and where he has also given high-profile hire John Podesta leeway to pursue more activist policies. Richard McGregor

2. Immigration . . . looking for a deal with top Republicans

The president might not be as expansive on this issue as he has been in the past, when he sometimes berated Republicans to support his plans for comprehensive immigration reform. With a Senate bill already passed offering undocumented migrants an (albeit) tortuous pathway to legal status, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives is now ready to grapple with the issue – and Mr Obama will want to help them. Within the Republican party anything that smacks of amnesty is explosive, and the leadership will need all the support it can muster, not just to keep its members in line, but to stop the issue tearing the party apart.

(Read more: Obama's risk of going too left in State of the Union)

As long as the Republicans do not water the Senate bill down too drastically, Mr Obama has every interest in working with John Boehner, the House speaker, to do a deal. The president will be choosing his words carefully. Richard McGregor

3. Trade deals . . . concerns about passing Congress weigh on talks

The administration is deep into negotiations for two large trade deals,with Asia-Pacific nations and Europe. But it is far from clear whether Mr Obamacan get them through Congress, something that is weighing heavily on the talks.

(Read more: U.S. lawmakers propose fast-track bill for trade agreements)

The key to speedy and amendment-free passage of trade deals is"fast-track" legislation, which lapsed in 2007 and which the White House wants to see reauthorised this year. Many Democrats are sceptical, so the question is whether Mr Obama will take on his own party and demand its support. He may try to make the case that trade, if carried out with high-standard deals, can benefit workers, and point to specific examples in the talks.

But if he ducks the issue, it would signal that trade is far from a priority for the administration. Trade Promotion Authority may then languish for months in Congress, and the talks could stall as European and Pacific negotiators fail to make the last concessions needed for final agreement. James Politi

4. The Economy . . . chance to spell out new agenda

This will be Mr Obama's fifth State of the Union address, but after endless budget battles and a big fall in the deficit, it will be his first when fiscal policy is not a pressing economic issue. That makes it an opportunity for the president to define a new national agenda on economic policy.

A crucial question is how he frames the struggles of America's middle class. Aides have promised an "optimistic" speech: that could see the president trying to ride the economic recovery, laying out a series of small but achievable measures to help in areas such as retraining or college affordability.

(Read more: Forget the State of the Union, focus on the Fed)

Alternatively, he may try to paint a broader picture of the pressures caused by globalisation and technological change, and demand more radical measures – such as the minimum wage rise he called for last year – that have little chance of passing the current Congress. Robin Harding

5. Foreign Policy . . . uncertainty about US presence in Afghanistan

The president will use his speech to claim that he is fulfilling one major foreign policy commitment: bringing the war in Afghanistan to a conclusion. By the end of the year, the formal mission in Afghanistan – the longest war the US has ever fought – will come to an end.

(Read more: Robert Gates hits out at Obama foreign policy)

As he speaks, however, there is still considerable uncertainty about the future of American engagement in the country. The US has pushed for an agreement with the Afghan government that would allow several thousand troops to remain in the country, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign.

Mr Obama will also probably highlight two other foreign policy initiatives – the nuclear talks with Iran and the administration's new drive for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

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