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Obama 'has reason to be nervous'

When you think about the immense challenges facing the United States and the broader globe, it's remarkable that President Obama stood before members of Congress and the American people in his State of the Union speech and had so little to say. Very few of his proposals centered on anything new. Those that did, such as his executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors or the new "MyRA" startersavings accounts, will do little to move our vast, complex economy forward.

(Read more: Obama's speech was 'small ball': Rep. Paul Ryan)

In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama said he would ask for the creation of a new retirement fund product.
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In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama said he would ask for the creation of a new retirement fund product.

Really? A government-backed savings bond!?!! That's his solution to greater retirement security for middle-class Americans? How about broad corporate tax reform, which would actually boost incomes for working Americans? A serious reform effort would do far more to help the middle class than anything in this speech.

The president deserves props for his style, rhetoric, and what can honestly be labeled as oratory genius. And yet, while we will be talking about his gifted speaking ability long after he leaves office, it is also this very ability that has helped in his undoing.

(Read more: 2014 isn't Obama's year (so far): NBC/WSJ Poll)

The president often speaks with such ability and moving rhetoric that he raises expectations, and then consistently fails to deliver on the substance. Long gone are the heady days of national movements, and hope, and change. This is no longer the moment when the "rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

While the President's "practical" proposals may reflect a realistic political scenario, it's also possible that there is more to the White House's strategy than trying to maneuver around an intransient Congress.

At this point, Obama is just trying to survive the November midterm elections without losing full control of Congress. Losing the House in 2010 stung, but losing the Senate two years before he leaves office would be worse. Not only would this clearly demonstrate the public's repudiation of his signature health-care law, it would also be a significant blow to his legacy.

(Read more: Paul Singer: Minimum-wage hike would destroy jobs)

Perhaps the president was intentionally trying to steer clear of controversial issues. His choice of words certainly suggests this was the case. He used the word "job" or a form of "work" 68 times, while using the words climate (2), gun (1), immigration (3), and surveillance (1) sparingly.

He also played heavily to his base in the speech. He spoke about women and their right to earn equal pay for equal work, and giving birth and taking time off to take care of sick kids. He singled out single moms for high praise. He even spoke about expanding the earned income-tax credit for singles. These are all laudable goals. But it's not lost on anyone in the White House that Democrats need a big turnout by women, especially single women, if they are to have a chance of keeping control of the U.S. Senate.

And make no mistake: A Republican-controlled Senate would be downright miserable for the White House. Trust me on this. I ran President George W. Bush's political office in 2006 when Democrats regained control of both chambers of Congress. The next two years were mired in failed legislative attempts and investigations. If this happens, the president's party will immediately begin looking to 2016 and their next presidential leader, further undermining the president's already-diminished political capital.

(Read more: Obamacare first-person series: From a cancer patient to retirees)

The president has reason to be nervous. A look at historical polling data data suggests Democrats are likely to lose the Senate. In George W. Bush's second midterm election in 2006, the average approval rating for President Bush across the six Senate seats Democrats won (MO, MT, OH, PA, RI, VA) was 40 percent. Compare that to the seven best pickup opportunities for Republicans in 2014 (AK, AR, LA, MT, NC, SD, WV), where President Obama's average 2013 approval rating was 35 percent.

Even though the president's approval has ticked up in recent weeks, he's still hovering around 40 percent in these red states. As we all know, a lot can change in nine months of politics — but it's going to take a lot of hope and change to turn these kinds of numbers around.

— By Sara Fagen

Sara Taylor Fagen is a partner at DDC Advocacy and a former Political Director for President George W. Bush. She is also a CNBC contributor. Follow her on Twitter @sarafagen2.

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