By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama may not say it in his State of the Union speech this week, but part of his underlying message will be: Please vote for Democrats in the November elections.
Obama's big speech on Tuesday will be his sixth foray into the House of Representatives chamber to lay out his policy priorities for the year.
This year's address is critical to forming a narrative on which Democrats can campaign this year. And Obama wants to bolster his standing after a rocky end-of-the-year controversy over the botched rollout of his signature healthcare law, and the tumult surrounding a government shutdown.
Obama has seized on income inequality in America as the main theme of his State of the Union speech, which went through its usual draft process over the weekend.
He will promote his demand that Congress raise the minimum wage and call for steps to increase jobs at the lower rungs of the economic ladder at a time when the stock market is soaring, but overall job growth is tepid.
The White House sees raising incomes as a key to building up the middle class and getting more Americans out of poverty and into better lives.
The implicit message, that Democrats stand for the middle class, should help them as they gird for what could be difficult congressional elections in November.
"I think it will define the battlefield of our debate, by clarifying for the American people about who's on their side," Representative Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Reuters.
"The more the president talks about building the middle class and the more Republicans talk about protecting special interests, the better the battlefield for us."
Democrats will need all the help they can get.
The party in control of the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections. Republicans are mounting a spirited attack to take control of the Senate and capture more seats to bolster their majority in the House of Representatives.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said his party stands a good chance of winning eight seats currently held by Democrats and could possibly extend their gains further.
The party needs to pick up a total of six seats to win control of the 100-seat chamber.
"The American people will understand by this fall that we are the party of the private sector," McConnell said on "Fox News Sunday."
"We've tried big government now for six years in a row, we know that it doesn't work."
If Democrats lose the Senate, Obama's ability to push legislation will be reduced greatly and solidify his status as lame duck.
Democrats harbor hopes of increasing their seats in both chambers, but with Obama's own job approval rating hovering around 40 percent in the latest Reuters-Ipsos survey, this might just be bravado.
The president's popularity reflects the mood of the country and can play a crucial role in midterm elections, even though his name is not on the ballot.
"I would expect the Democrats will lose a few seats," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
"It's going to be difficult for them to make gains. I don't think the bottom is going to fall out from underneath them."
Obama will face the familiar dilemma of second-term presidents when he presents his State of the Union message, maintaining the country's focus on his agenda before voters start looking ahead to the race to replace him in 2016.
It is the biggest stage the president can command during the year, with millions tuning in.
"It's one of those moments when people tune in and they really want to hear what are your priorities and what your presidency is about," said Mike McCurry, who was press secretary for President Bill Clinton. "Given the year they had in 2013, this is a good way to hit the reset button for 2014."
White House officials acknowledge that the fallout over the government shutdown, which Americans largely blamed on Republicans, and the healthcare website's woes took a toll on Obama.
They believe he has recovered somewhat, but as one official said: "We have some work to do to restore people's confidence."
After a year in which many of his key domestic legislative proposals were stymied, from gun control to immigration, Obama has scaled back his ambitions to some extent.
He wants legislation to get through Congress, but in the absence of a consensus around some policy objectives, he is carrying out some measures through executive action.
"I will measure myself at the end of my presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society," Obama told The New Yorker magazine.
Republicans will be listening to Obama's speech to determine if the president is willing to move in their direction, such as on authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas.
"If they want to make this the 'year of action,' if they really want to work with Congress, there are ways to do that. I hope they have not completely given up on that," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Caren Bohan, Andre Grenon and Sophie Hares)