(CBSNews.com) - A State of the Union address is typically a workmanlike affair - presidents can strive for the lofty and inspirational, but in the end, much of their speech will amount to a laundry list of achievements and aspirations. Substance, by necessity, crowds out style.
As a result, the speech tends to be less visionary than, say, an inaugural address, which aims at posterity rather than the politics of the moment. But the substantive quality of State of the Union addresses also makes them an excellent chronicle of a president's agenda as it unfolds - a totem for the successes, failures, and unrealized ambitions of an administration that, each year, grapples with new opportunities and new problems.
President Obama's own State of the Union addresses tell quite a story. Obamacare, the stimulus package, Wall Street reform, an ailing auto industry, gun violence, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic inequality, immigration reform - it's all there, in gory detail, a permanent reminder of where the president secured victory and where he fell short.
As Mr. Obama prepares to give his fifth State of the Union speech on Tuesday (his sixth, if you count his first speech before a Joint Session of Congress in February 2009), a look at his past addresses provides an instructive look of the powers and limits of the presidency.
2009: The honeymoon
In February 2009, the president was still basking in the glow of his big 2008 victory, boasting a job approval spread of 62 to 15 percent in a CBS News poll. But he had his work cut out for him - the U.S. was still knee-deep in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with an unemployment rate at 8.3 percent and climbing.
Mr. Obama didn't sugarcoat the situation in his address, noting "the stark reality of what we've inherited - a trillion dollar deficit, a financial crisis, and a costly recession."
He touted his recently passed $787 billion stimulus package, the largest economic stimulus program in American history. And without delving too far into specifics, the president promised a "historic commitment" to reforming America's health care system. That vow would eventually yield his most significant (and controversial) domestic achievement: the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and the recalibration of much of America's health insurance market.
The president nodded at the explosion of the budget deficit due to the recession, but he paired that with a focus on "long-term investments" - a balancing act would become a hallmark of his approach to budgetary policy throughout his presidency.
He also vowed to deliver on a key campaign promise by pursuing a new strategy in Afghanistan to turn the tide of the war there and by "responsibly" ending the war in Iraq. Within three years, the last U.S. soldier would depart Iraqi soil.
2010: The hangover
By the time his next big speech arrived in January 2010, Mr. Obama's honeymoon was long since gone. Unemployment had shot up to 9.7 percent, down only slightly from a high of 10 percent a month earlier. His approval ratings, once nearly celestial, had fallen to back to earth at 50 percent in a CBS poll conducted that month.
Perhaps most ominously, the momentum behind the president's push for health care reform had been deeply undermined by the raucous town hall protests throughout the fall of 2009, which saw supporters of the proposed reforms on the receiving end of angry protests from conservative constituents.
"By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics," the president said, grinning at his own understatement. But he pleaded with Congress to keep moving forward, despite the noise. "As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed," he said. "Don't walk away from reform." By the end of March, Mr. Obama signed his health reform plan into law.
The ascendance of the Republican Party, which had been briefly cowed by the president's big win in 2008, was also evident in a new emphasis on deficit reduction. "Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions," Mr. Obama said. "The federal government should do the same."
The embrace of deficit reduction previewed one of the biggest struggles of Mr. Obama's presidency, as negotiations over a budgetary "grand bargain," votes to lift the debt ceiling, and other fiscal wrangling consumed much of the next several years.
2011: The Republicans are back
At the end of 2010, Democrats endured what the president called s a "shellacking" in the November midterm elections, losing control of the House of Representatives. The results of that election were on vivid display when the president delivered his 2011 State of the Union address: instead of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., behind him in the speaker's chair, Mr. Obama was flanked by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the new Speaker of the House.
Unemployment at the time remained stubbornly high at 9.0 percent, but the president's approval rating in a CBS News poll conducted that month was a resilient 49 percent.
In his speech, the president exuded optimism, turning the page on the recession and pitching new economic strategies for igniting growth rather than just managing the decay. "We are poised for progress," he said. "Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again."
Calling the decisions ahead "our generation's Sputnik moment", the president pledged renewed investment in infrastructure, biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy.
But with the turnover in power, the president was also playing, in part, on Republican turf in 2011. And it showed: his speech paid continued attention to deficit reduction, proposing a five-year freeze in annual domestic spending.
2012: Campaign mode
A year later, the president's 2012 State of the Union address served as something of a reelection campaign kickoff. With the Republican presidential field taking shape and eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney beginning to emerge from the scrum, the president used his address to test drive some themes and messages that would soon undergird his reelection campaign.
With unemployment still elevated at 8.3 percent and his approval ratings barely above water at 47 percent approval and 45 percent disapproval, the president deployed an aggressively populist tone, critiquing his soon-to-be opponent without ever saying the man's name.
He touted a resurgence in the auto industry, zinging Romney for an op-ed that called for the ailing American auto companies to undergo a managed bankruptcy. "On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen," he said. "We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back. "
He also debuted the "Buffett Rule" - a conviction that millionaires should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes. It was also an unspoken rebuke of the very wealthy Romney, whose effective tax rate was dramatically lower than 30 percent due to capital gains tax cuts.
"Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?" he asked. "Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else, like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we're serious about paying down our debt, we can't do both."
The president also allowed himself some campaign-friendly chest-beating, bragging on the end of the Iraq war and the operation that killed Osama bin Laden the previous May. "For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq," he said. "For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country."
2013: The shadow of tragedy
Mr. Obama would go on to win reelection in 2012. His approval ratings at the start of 2013 reflected a slight victory bump (51 to 41 percent, according to a CBS poll), and the unemployment rate was below 8 percent and falling, but his 2013 State of the Union was far from triumphal. What could have been an optimistic, aggressive speech was darkened by the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 adults.
The president delivered an emotional plea on behalf of his proposals to curb gun violence, including background checks for gun buyers, a limit in the size of ammunition magazines, a reinstatement of the ban on military-grade assault rifles. "Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress," Mr. Obama said. "If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun."
As the president spoke, Vice President Joe Biden sat behind him, a green ribbon on his lapel to mark the tragedy.
The speech contained a number of other ambitious proposals, including a call to raise the federal minimum wage, universal pre-kindergarten education for all American children, and comprehensive immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
For all of its exhortations, however, the president's 2013 speech turned out to be more aspirational than actionable. Nearly every proposal - gun control, a minimum wage hike, immigration reform - would come up short in 2013, thwarted by an uncooperative Congress.
In fact, the biggest stories of 2013 were entirely absent from the president's address. Controversial government surveillance programs, a government shutdown, the rocky implementation of Obamacare - not a word was spoken about any of it, proving that no one speech can set the agenda for a town as relentlessly unpredictable as Washington, D.C.
© 2014 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.