Obama’s goal: Get agenda moving, people believing
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will devote most of his first State of the Union address on Wednesday to fixing an economy that has sapped the nation’s spirits and eroded his standing, with calls for tax cuts for small businesses and more restraint from a government that keeps piling up debt.
Obama will start on the economy and spend about two-thirds of his prime-time speech on that topic, the one most on the minds of Americans. His goal is to show a dissatisfied nation in plainspoken and specific terms that he understands their frustration and their struggles, and that his vast agenda is in touch with what they need.
The foreign policy section of his speech will come second and be largely devoid of new policy initiatives. Obama will give an update on the escalating war in Afghanistan and emphasize matters looming in the year ahead, including the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and a nuclear security summit in Washington.
The president will seek a freeze on most domestic spending for three years, yet propose a 6.2 percent increase in spending on education, an investment in a popular arena that he sees as vital to an economic recovery. He will offer a highly anticipated way forward on how to salvage health care reform, take responsibility for mistakes in his first year and follow up his speech with a dash to Florida to announce $8 billion in awards for high-speed rail.
Facing a divided Congress, riding poll numbers that show him to be a politically polarizing leader, Obama needs to take command of the debate. The same leader who rode a tide of voter frustration into office with his “yes we can” theme now is getting smacked by it himself. Change is working against him.
His goal: Get the economy, the confidence of voters and his own presidency on surer footing.
One day after the Senate rejected his plans to create a bipartisan task force to tackle the federal deficit, Obama will announce that he’s creating a similar panel by executive order. The goal of the panel – likely to be composed of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans – would be to make recommendations to Congress for reducing the deficit, though the weakness of such a commission is that there’s no way to guarantee the recommendations will be passed.
For all the new wrinkles he offers, Obama’s moment will be measured largely by how well he reconnects with the public.
“In this political environment, what I haven’t always been successful at doing is breaking through the noise and speaking directly to the American people,” Obama conceded to an interviewer last week. This is his chance – speeches like this one can draw 30 million to 50 million viewers, sometimes more.
“The president is going to explain why he thinks the American people are angry,” Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday morning.
The guest list provides a rough outline of the story Obama wants to tell. Sitting with first lady Michelle Obama in an elevated box overlooking the floor of the House will be people with stories of success and struggles, from immigrants who started businesses to families having a hard time making ends meet.
The agenda itself will have a familiar ring.
Obama says he will not retreat from the big issues he campaigned on and tried to get done in his first year, when political momentum was strong. He will push for health care, regulation of Wall Street, energy and immigration reform, and continue the global fight against terrorists.
He will ask Congress for help in blunting the impact of a Supreme Court decision that gives corporations much more freedom to influence elections through political advertising. Obama also will renew his call for immigration reform, a volatile issue once considered a first-year priority but lately sent to the back burner.
Meanwhile, Obama’s White House is still feeling the jolt of last week’s Senate election in Massachusetts. When little-known Republican Scott Brown won the seat held for nearly a half-century by the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, the result was widely viewed as a symbol of frustration with the economy and the powers that be.
So Obama will try to more sharply cast his messages to address people’s daily concerns. That starts with creating more jobs at a time of 10 percent unemployment but extends to the other topics he will address, including the government’s ongoing habit of spending more money than it has.
Then again, Obama already has been trying to couch his initiatives in real-life terms.
In his first address to Congress 11 months ago, a speech too early in his tenure to be considered a State of the Union, Obama talked of people living with the economic anxiety of sleepless nights, bills they could not pay and jobs they had lost.
“It’s an agenda that begins with jobs,” Obama said that night in February. It still is, but in a much tougher political environment for him and his party.
Obama remains a well-liked figure, polls show, but his overall approval rating and grades for handling issues like the economy have dropped significantly.
A new Gallup Poll finds that Obama is the most politically polarizing president in recent history, with 88 percent of Democrats approving of his job performance while just 23 percent of Republicans do. He has the twin political challenges of giving Democratic lawmakers an agenda they can rally around in this midterm election year, yet showing emboldened Republicans and a skeptical public that he is serious about reversing Washington’s off-putting partisanship.
Obama is expected to touch on post-earthquake life in Haiti, which has faded slightly from public attention but remains an epic humanitarian crisis.
The night before the speech, two sections in particular – health care and government reform – were still being worked on by White House officials. Obama was working up to the last hours to craft the speech while aides, at the same time, labored to shorten it.
Obama’s message will be fleshed out in greater detail afterward as he travels to Florida on Thursday and New Hampshire on Tuesday for job-focused appearances, and when he submits his 2011 budget to Congress on Monday.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott, Julie Pace, Jennifer Loven and Andrew Taylor contributed to this story.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.
Support Local Journalism
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User