Democrats bicker over Obama's SOTU message: Income inequality or economic growth?

“Income inequality is a phenomenon that’s happening that needs to be talked about. But when you get to the solutions, you run out of the easy things to do and then you get to what are we really going to do to improve the schools, create jobs, and improve the economy,” said Kessler. “I think the president does a pretty good balancing act on these things. He pointed out income inequality as a vexing problem, but he also talked about trade deals and having more growth.”

It will be difficult for the administration to both strike that balance and achieve its main political goal of 2014—holding onto the Senate.

The White House has been holding private meetings with senators up for reelection, betting that red-state Democrats can benefit from economic initiatives framed in a populist manner. But with Obama’s approval ratings in bad shape in these states, that strategy could be a losing one.

“There are going to be times when, because you’re in a conservative state, there’s going to be movement to where you distinguish yourself from the president,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who’s working for Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina. (Hagan notably skipped Obama’s economic speech at North Carolina State University last week.) “But that’s not incompatible with the larger message on the middle class.”