President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday will be in part driven by events - chief among them the "shellacking" he took in the midterm elections and the assassination attempt on Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.
But it will also, inevitably, be driven by politics - and, along with the tax cut compromise worked out in December, set the groundwork for Mr. Obama's argument to voters that he deserves to be reelected in 2012.
When Republicans took control of the House in November, it was an obvious setback for Democrats. But it also came with an opportunity. After two years of casting stones from the sidelines, Republicans had to take some ownership of the business of governing. The result was the unexpectedly productive lame duck session punctuated by the tax cut compromise, which provided Americans with a glimpse - however brief - of a Washington that seemed to work.
And much of the credit for that went to Mr. Obama, who had promised to change the tone in Washington but had until that moment, in even the eyes of many of his supporters, failed to deliver. Polls in the wake of the compromise suggest that his standing has increased since the midterms, particularly among independents, who may be giving the president a second look as someone who ultimately can function as, in the words of his predecessor, "a uniter, not a divider."
Indeed, the tax cut deal allowed Mr. Obama to present himself as someone capable of overseeing a more effective Washington. Then came the tragic attack on Giffords and others in Tucson, which gave him the opportunity (however unwanted, in light of the circumstances) to present himself as capable of changing the tone as well.
The tax cut deal and Mr. Obama's reaction to the Tucson tragedy - which included amemorializing the victims and calling on Americans to aspire to their better selves - allowed the president to reclaim his original argument: That he can rise above the ugliness of Washington rhetoric and cut through the divisiveness that rose to a fever pitch under President George W. Bush.
The speech Mr. Obama delivers Tuesday will be designed in large part to drive that notion home. The president has little reason to call for the sort of aggressive policy moves of his first two years - political reality means that anything as ambitions as health care reform is off the table. Instead, he will stress how lawmakers can come together both legislatively and personally - a notion that will be reinforced by the decision of many lawmakers to break with tradition and watch the speech alongside a member of the opposition party.
The Barack Obama of the 2011 State of the Union address will strive to project moderation. He will likely point to his recent efforts to reach out to the business community to make the case that acrimony can't be overcome -- and drive that point home by stressing his desire to improve the playing field for American business to be competitive around the globe.
That doesn't mean there won't be fault lines, of course. Republicans are aggressively pushing the notion that Mr. Obama has been a reckless spender in his first two years, an argument they will come back to over and over in the run-up to election day 2012. Theyto drive the point home.
And while Mr. Obama is stressing that he wants to lower deficits responsibly, he will call in the speech for continued spending on infrastructure, education and research and development to help the economy continue to recover - and caution that deep spending cuts could hamper that recovery. In a preview speech released over the weekend, the president cast such costs not as spending but investment, prompting derision from Republicans.
Yet don't expect that conflict to yield anything like the "" moment provided by Rep. Joe Wilson in 2009. The speech, coming just weeks after a national tragedy, will be about unity: The president will favor soaring rhetoric and generalities over potentially divisive policy proposals, and members of both parties in the audience will look for opportunities to showcase their willingness to disagree without being disagreeable.
Republicans realize that the credit for that environment is likely to go disproportionately to Mr. Obama, just as it did following the tax cut deal. But there isn't much they can do about it. For the president, the speech offers the opportunity to set the tone for a reelection campaign highly dependent on winning back the independent voters who respond well to efforts to rise above the typical Washington noise. And that's not an opportunity he's going to pass up.