Tonight at 9 p.m., President Obama will step up to the dais in the House of Representatives for his fifth State of the Union Address. The narrative of the night, by pundit acclamation, is how Obama will try to get his groove back. It's been a rough 12 months since his last State of the Union: Congress still hasn't passed an immigration-reform bill. His push for gun control fell apart in the face of Republican opposition. And though the government shutdown looked like a major political victory, it was soon followed by the catastrophic Healthcare.gov relaunch, an even more major political stumble from which he's still regaining his footing.
Don't buy it. Even if Obama delivered a barnburner, it wouldn't move the dial much. Speeches—even the State of the Union—don't do much to turn polling around or radically shift Congress. Though it's hard to remember now, Obama finished off last year's address with an emotionally charged and widely praised call on Congress to honor the victims of gun violence by at least voting on new safety measures, a demand Congress blithely ignored.
In any case, this is expected to be a more tempered speech. But that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. Even in a modern age of dwindling audience, the State of the Union draws more views than any political event all year and sets the agenda for White House policy and the nation for 2014. Here's what to watch for.