Steering away from Americans' top—and most divisive—priorities
A national Quinnipiac poll released last week indicates Americans believe health care (18 percent) should be President Obama's and Congress' top 2014 priority, with jobs/unemployment (16 percent) and the economy (15 percent) ranking second and third. However, the president is likely to focus on less-divisive issues that have broad voter support (or are less top-of-mind) — and on which he can go around Congress, if necessary, to achieve his stated aims — namely, income inequality/the minimum wage, an extension of unemployment benefits, and immigration reform, all of which rank low on Americans' priority scale, at 1 percent, 1 percent, and 2 percent, respectively.
Income inequality. With Republicans controlling the House, further tax increases are a non-starter, but the president has public opinion on his side for a minimum-wage increase. In a December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 63 percent of Americans, including nearly half of Republicans (47 percent), said they support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Nonetheless, legislation is unlikely to move this year. President Obama called for raising the minimum wage in his State of the Union address last year with 71 percent of Americans supporting an increase at the time — a proposal in the House to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 was still voted down by every Republican in the chamber.
(Read more: Paul Singer: Minimum-wage hike would destroy jobs)
Unemployment-benefit extension. Expect President Obama to push Congress to pass an extension of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program (widely referred to as the federal jobless benefit). Recent polls from CBS/New York Times and ABC/Washington Post indicate over 60 percent of Americans support an extension. Regardless of the actual merits of an extension, Republicans hoping to win back the Senate in November might be wise to agree to a deal; at least 3 percent of the labor force in the contested states of Alaska, Arkansas, Michigan, and West Virginia will be affected by the expiration of benefits in 2014.
Immigration. President Obama knows Republicans have to face this issue for electoral purposes. By nearly a 3-to-1 margin, Hispanic adults in the U.S. hold Republicans responsible over President Obama for a lack of new immigration legislation . This — combined with the knowledge that a majority of Americans support immigration reform and a multitude of businesses are pushing Republicans for reform — suggests President Obama is not about to let up on his quest to reform immigration soon. Nor should he.
While President Obama largely has public opinion on his side on these issues, garnering support in Congress will be a much heavier lift. Look for the president to walk a tightrope between calling for greater bipartisan collaboration and threatening to invoke executive orders. He is likely to highlight Congress's brief détente when House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came together with his Democratic counterpart, Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), to pass a budget. But, after Congress rebuffed nearly every goal President Obama set out in his 2013 State of the Union address, it's also clear from aides' repeated public comments that he "has a pen and phone" and won't hesitate to use them to speed his agenda along. This isn't new. The Obama Administration has used executive orders aggressively for the last couple of years — just ask the coal industry; I suspect they will tell you things can't get much worse.
Public opinion appears to be against the president's use of executive orders. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll suggests Americans are divided, with 51 percent of registered voters supporting the president's invoking of executive orders, and 48 percent opposed.
Hoping to put the past year behind him
President Obama will also want to use his State of the Union address to drive some political goals. Among them, he almost certainly hopes to lay the previous year's blunders to rest, including the failed rollout of healthcare.gov, the IRS scandal, and the tragedy in Benghazi. He will also seek to boost his public image, which has suffered dramatically in recent months. However, if history is any indicator, he is unlikely to see much improvement following his speech.
(Read more: Obamacare first-person series: From a cancer patient to retirees)
On average, since 1978, presidential approval has declined 0.13 percent following a State of the Union speech. President Obama himself has fared slightly worse, averaging a 0.75-percent decline following his State of the Union addresses. While this president is unlikely to see any sizable jump, it is worth noting that President Clinton received a 10-point jump after his sixth State of the Union speech in 1998, likely due to U.S. GDP growth of 6.05 percent in 1997 (2013 saw a mere 3.07 percent), and unemployment of 4.7 percent (which today stands at 6.7 percent).
— 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.