President Obama pushed for immigration reform in his weekly address on Saturday June 22. (Photo/Getty Images )

Obama’s State of the Union to focus on the economy, immigration – and so will Senator Rubio

Expect two forceful, tough speeches tonight.  All eyes will be on President Barack Obama as he delivers the State of the Union address and Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio as he follows with the Republican rebuttal.  Neither speech is expected to be tame, and both men are getting ready to offer competing visions on how to fix the economy and present their parties’ course for this legislative term.

“President Obama has already said we can’t cut our way to prosperity, and he will lay out a broad economic reform plan to make the country a magnet for jobs and manufacturing, while equipping every American with the skills to do these jobs,” says an Administration official who spoke about the speech on background. “The State of the Union and his previous Inauguration speech are like two acts of the same play in terms of what we want to get accomplished,” the aide adds.

But with the second term comes a more “battle-hardened” president.  “One of the biggest lessons the president learned in his first term is he has to engage the public more,” says Juan Sepulveda, Senior Advisor for Hispanic Affairs for the Democratic National Committee and a former White House official.  Obama will focus on certain areas of importance to Latino families – job creation through infrastructure investments, “ladders of opportunity” in communities, and investments in education, according to Sepulveda, while urging  the public to put more pressure on Congress to get things done.  Right after the speech, the president plans to go to North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois to make his case directly to the American public, explains Sepulveda.

RELATED: In inauguration speech, Obama invokes immigration amidst strong Latino presence 

Senator Marco Rubio is getting ready to deliver his own forceful speech and argue the Republicans’ very different approach to fixing the economy.  “I believe Senator Rubio will communicate an alternative vision for our country that gets us out of the stagnation we’re in,” says former Commerce Secretary and Romney adviser Carlos Gutierrez. “The American people want to know why their taxes keep going up; this time it’s the president’s turn to show he is serious about the real deficit crisis in our country,” says Gutierrez.

RELATED: Rubio’s rise in the GOP 

As Obama and the Republicans square off on the upcoming budget deadline, though, it’s still about jobs and day-to-day realities for many Latino families. “The state of the economy and jobs are still the biggest concern among voters, just like it was during the elections,” says University of New Mexico political scientist Gabriel Sanchez. “Many folks will be looking to see if the president and Congress can make major strides in this direction,” adds Sanchez.

The president and Senator Marco Rubio are expected to address another important priority for many Latino voters; immigration reform.  “Obama has raised the bar in making this a higher priority than in any other State of the Union speech,” says University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto. “He is tying himself to this push for immigration reform,” he adds.

RELATED: Obama: No more debate, pass immigration reform now

Immigration advocates will be looking to see if Obama creates the boundaries for the debate in Congress, says Barreto.  “If Obama says an immigration bill without a path to citizenship is not acceptable, then Congress knows he wouldn’t sign a bill that doesn’t include that,” he explains.

In Rubio’s speech, his stance on immigration will be very closely scrutinized. “Republicans in some ways have even more to gain on the issue than Democrats,” says Barreto. “If Rubio is clear on endorsing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, even with requirements and waiting periods, he and the party have a tremendous amount to gain with Latino voters,” he says.

RELATED: Senators: Immigration reform by summer

For both men as well as for both parties, expectations are high for tonight’s speeches.  President Obama campaigned for re-election promising he could do better than Republicans at strengthening the economy and providing more opportunities for lower and middle-income families.  The president also said immigration reform would be a top administration priority this year, and has also staked the need for gun control legislation.  For Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican response is a chance to showcase his increasingly influential role as a Latino Republican “bridge builder” between different groups in the GOP.  And for the public, it is a chance to see the road map the different parties are pushing for as the economy, immigration reform and other issues are in the balance.

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