WASHINGTON - When he delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama not only will be speaking to the 40 million or so TV viewers across the country. His words also will be aimed at a few people sitting right in front of him.
A junior Republican who is key to an immigration deal. A senior Democrat who may need coaxing to compromise on gun control. A member of the GOP ticket Obama vanquished in November. And a Supreme Court justice likely to be the swing vote on same-sex marriage.
What the president says and how he says it can set the stage for cooperation or confrontation on an issue. He can boost an ally or lay down a marker. Though his inaugural address last month was soaring and thematic, the specificity of a State of the Union means it can be a sort of political dog whistle, with messages only some in the audience will be able to discern.
"Every word in a State of the Union address has multiple audiences," says Michael Waldman, who as chief White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton worked on several of them. "You care about what the sponsor of the bill hears. You care about what the rank-and-file of the Democrats or the Republicans hear. You care about what the country hears. And the notes may ring differently to different people."
On big issues, will Obama laud the provisions that unite Republicans and Democrats or spotlight the ones that divide them? Will he mention by name his top allies and the important figures on the other side? If he does, will that make it easier or harder for them to deliver?
The annual speech to a joint session of Congress is a "giant Wurlitzer organ for presidents," Waldman says, capable of playing many tunes. Here's a rundown on the key players Obama hopes will be listening to the music.
Immigration: The junior Republican
After two years in the Senate (and at age 41 a generation younger than most of his colleagues), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has emerged as the single most crucial ally for Obama's hopes of signing a comprehensive immigration bill this year.
Rubio, who will give the Republican response to Obama's speech Tuesday, is a member of a group of four Republican and four Democratic senators that outlined the framework for a bill that would manage the flow of legal immigrants and provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants now in the USA. The group includes other important figures, among them Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz. A bipartisan group of House members is also at work.
It was Rubio, the son of Cuban emigres, who launched into fluent Spanish at a news conference announcing the group's broad principles - underscoring the imperative many Republicans feel to reach out to Latino voters, who overwhelmingly backed Obama in November.
And it was Rubio, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, who is doing much of the selling job to conservative critics. Radio host Rush Limbaugh, who had bashed the bipartisan framework, had only praise for Rubio after he appeared on his show, calling his efforts "admirable and noteworthy." Rubio is a crucial emissary to House Republicans, many of them from solidly GOP districts where most voters oppose providing a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.
Winning passage in the House almost certainly will be more difficult than the Senate.
"Rubio is viewed by some Republicans as doing on the Republican side what Obama did on the Democratic side: Get into office for a nanosecond and start to run for president," says Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute. "At the same time, he's absolutely essential to the problem they have with Latinos. He clearly has the Tea Party credibility, and he's the younger generation."
That makes him a valuable commodity for the GOP - and, potentially, for Obama. Meissner says she'll be listening for the president's approach in his speech. "Does he frame this in a way that signals he and the Democrats will do this in a way that it is a win-win for Republicans also, and not an 'I-win-you-lose?'"
Guns: The senior Democrat
The repercussions of gun violence propelled Dianne Feinstein's career. She was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978 when Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated in City Hall by a gunman. She discovered Milk's body that day. She succeeded Moscone as mayor.
Two years after she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, Feinstein was the author of an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. After last year's shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., killed 20 children and six educators, she filed a bill that would impose a stricter version of the ban.
Some key fellow Democrats haven't rallied behind her, at least not yet. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., hasn't endorsed the proposal, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., warns that it would be hard to get it through the Senate, much less the House. Feinstein bristled at the list of witnesses at the first Senate hearing on gun legislation as tilted against the ban and says she will call her own hearing.
At 79, Feinstein is in her fifth Senate term. When it comes to guns, the issue for Obama is not her support but her willingness to compromise. Will she help push a bill if the assault weapons ban isn't part of it?
Negotiations with some senators, including Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have focused on expanding background checks for gun buyers and other less divisive issues.
"It's a very difficult rhetorical challenge," says Matt Bennett, formerly of Americans for Gun Safety but now at the centrist think-tank Third Way. "He doesn't want to say, 'We may not get the assault weapons ban done.' But he can put a lot of emphasis on universal background checks, on a firearms trafficking statute, on the kind of things Manchin and Coburn are ready to make deals on."
In the State of the Union, the president not only can draw a line in the sand for his opponents on what must be done but also send a message to his allies on the limits of what can be done. Bennett asks, "Is he going to be telling Democrats on guns, immigration and on fiscal issues, 'You have got to be willing to make some concessions?'"
Budget: The wannabe veep
Obama tried to reach a "grand bargain" with House Speaker John Boehner last year that would raise tax revenue and cut spending, including changes to Medicare and Social Security.
The talks failed and soured relations between the two. The issues haven't gone away, gaining urgency as automatic spending cuts are poised to take effect March 1, and the resolution that funds government operations expires March 27.
Out front for the GOP on these issues is House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was Mitt Romney's 2012 running mate.
Ryan didn't make it to the vice presidency, but since the election, he helped pass a compromise plan on taxes and devise the party's strategy to delay dealing with the debt ceiling until spring.
He is drawing up a budget plan he says will balance the books in 10 years. He'll be at the center of the looming fiscal negotiations.
He was critical and deficit hawks were disappointed when Obama mentioned only in passing the need for hard choices to address the federal deficit and the national debt in his inaugural address. They expect to hear more in this address.
"I don't think that, given the fiscal picture of the country, he can possibly talk about the state of the union without addressing it," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "The parts that have been done are the easy parts and not the parts that are really going to fix the budget. The hard parts are still sitting there."
They would include dealing with the exploding costs of Social Security and Medicare. "Now the rubber is hitting the road," Ryan told reporters at a breakfast hosted by The Wall Street Journal. "Our strategy is to engage the Democrats on issues where we think we can improve policy, to oppose them where we don't."
Same-sex marriage: The swing justice
The most dramatic words in Obama's inaugural address last month may have been those embracing same-sex marriage, likening the struggle for equal rights by gay men and lesbians with those once waged by African Americans and women. At the moment, though, the battle over same-sex unions is being fought not with federal legislation but in the courts.
In two cases being argued before the Supreme Court next month, Justice Anthony Kennedy is likely to be the swing vote, as he has been on nearly all the important issues that have come before this court.
In Hollingsworth v. Perry, justices will debate the constitutionality and other issues surrounding California's Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. In U.S. v. Windsor, they will consider challenges to a 1996 federal law that denies Social Security survivor payments and other benefits to same-sex partners who were married in states that permit gay unions.
Kennedy, 76, is a Catholic appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan. Sometimes he sides with the court's consistent conservatives (Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas) and sometimes with its consistent liberals (Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor).
Supreme Court justices are invited to the State of the Union, though some choose not to attend. Kennedy was in the chamber last year.
He would hardly take instructions from Obama on this issue - he voted against the administration's position on the health care law and on campaign finance, to name two high-profile cases - but the president's rhetoric, and the societal changes it represents, could have an impact.
The administration is weighing whether to file a "friend of the court" brief backing the challengers in a pair of gay rights cases that will be argued before the Supreme Court in March. The Justice Department's brief would be due this month.
On previous cases involving the death penalty for juveniles and other issues, Kennedy's opinions suggest he is conscious of being on the right side of history, says Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor. And there's this: Kennedy wrote the court's only two decisions supporting gay rights, in 1996 and 2003.
"The fact that the president is calling attention to same-sex marriage is a powerful iteration that society is changing and it's changing quickly," says Klarman, author ofFrom the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage, published last year. "The president wouldn't have done it two years ago. He wouldn't have done it one year ago. The fact that the president is now making it very prominent illustrates how much society's views have changed, and that is relevant to Justice Kennedy."