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5 things to watch in Obama's State of the Union

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Story highlights

  • Will Obama's GOP jabs outweigh any olive branches?
  • State of the Union addresses can sometimes be policy laundry lists
  • Sometimes issues not mentioned say more than what's in the speech
  • What Michelle Obama wears might be biggest surprise of the night

President Barack Obama delivers the first State of the Union address of his second term on Tuesday. Here are five things to watch for as the president lays out his second-term agenda:

1. Slap and tickle

Sources say the president will point out bipartisan progress on immigration reform but he'll take it to the GOP on debt and tax reform. Already, Republicans are bracing to play victim.

Tally up the jabs and weigh them against mentions of common ground. That will be an early scorecard for Wednesday-morning quarterbacking.

Obama set to challenge and persuade

2. Wish lists

    Expect to forget what the president says. Nothing personal, Mr. President, but State of the Union addresses are notoriously forgotten.

    John F. Kennedy was a great orator -- quick, what did he say in his State of the Unions? How about Reagan? They're just not great venues for rhetoric.

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    Granted, the Monroe Doctrine and the Four Freedoms were both laid out in State of the Unions, but in general they tend to be laundry lists for party policy wishes.

    8 memorable State of the Union moments

    3. What he doesn't say

    An average of 44 million people have watched Obama deliver previous State of the Union addresses. His aides say a huge audience equals a huge opportunity.

    So, will he seize the opportunity to answer his critics and respond to his base on issues including: U.S. use of unmanned drones, the legal rationale for targeting Americans, U.S. policy in Syria, Iran's nuclear program, and security of U.S. diplomatic posts? On the domestic front, will he address poverty in the United States?

    Will any of these controversial issues make the cut?

    State of the Union to focus on jobs, wages and the economy

    4. Keep count

    Count how many times your issue gets mentioned.

    While presidential speechwriters insist the amount of time dedicated to an issue in most speeches doesn't matter as much as the language used to describe it, the State of the Union is an exception. That's because every word is debated.

    Aides say this speech will be heavy on economic themes. But look to see how much time Obama spends on the other issues he outlined in his inaugural address, including gay rights, women's rights, climate change and education.

    Mentions matter.

    Republicans, Democrats suggest priorities ahead of State of the Union

    5. Will she or won't she?

    Serious people don't care -- or so they say. But since first lady Michelle Obama shocked tout de D.C. by showing her guns in the heroes box during the president's 2009 joint address to Congress, her outfit has become one of the best (sometimes only) surprises of the night.

    Will she bare her arms again? Right now, it's one of the most closely held secrets in Washington.

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        2013 State of the Union

      • WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12:  U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol February 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. Facing a divided Congress, Obama focused his speech on new initiatives designed to stimulate the U.S. economy and said, "It?s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth".  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

        The heart of President Barack Obama's speech Tuesday was the same focus that's driven every State of the Union of his presidency.
      • Obama shakes hands with House Speaker John Boehner before delivering the address.

        President Barack Obama launched three days of campaign-style speeches with a visit to a manufacturing plant that he said epitomized his proposals for job creation.
      • President Barack Obama is greeted before his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, February 12.

        CNN asked viewers to post a #tweetoftheunion on Twitter summarizing Obama's State of the Union speech.
      • As with any State of the Union address, President Barack Obama had several audiences and there were multiple aims for the White House.
      • sotu2013 gop response rubio entire_00124817.jpg

        Claiming Barack Obama thinks a "free enterprise economy" is "the cause of our problems" -- not, as he sees it, the solution -- Sen. Marco Rubio argued that the president's proposals would hurt middle class citizens more than help them.
      •  	SPANISH FORK, UT - NOVEMBER 24: A car makes it's way up U.S. Highway 6 as several 2.1 mega watt wind powered turbines owned by Edison Mission Energy, sit a the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon November 24, 2008 in Spanish Fork, Utah. Each turbine is 300 feet tall, with three 150 foot blades. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior, Michael D. Olsen, said the potential for production of wind energy on public lands in the West is 'tremendous,' with the alternative energy source already accounting for the fastest growing energy sector in the U.S. Last year the U.S. saw a 46 percent increase in wind capacity and $9 billion in new investments, he said. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

        President Barack Obama talked up alternative energy. Not only did he tout the solar and natural gas industries' recent gains, he also talked up the amount of wind energy that's now fueling the country.
      • sot nixon 1974 dkg sotu_00001914.jpg

        From the Great Society to the Axis of Evil, here are historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's top State of the Union moments.
      • First Lady Michelle Obama, center, is recognized by the audience and special guests surrounding her before President Barack Obama's 2013 SOTU. Front row, left to right: Sgt. Sheena Adams, Nathaniel and Cleopatra Pendelton, Michelle Obama, Menchu de Luna Sanchez and Jill Biden. Second row, left to right: Governor John Kitzhaber, Deb Carey, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amanda McMillan, and Lieutenant Brian Murphy.

        Earlier presidents delivered a written message to be read to Congress before the tradition became at TV event.