Opinion: Obama’s State of the Union address: A preview

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Acknowledging errors since he took office as an agent of change, President Obama today pledged to help ease the economic pain felt by the middle class and to reenergize the political atmosphere in Washington.

With polls showing voters less approving of his year-old presidency, Obama will try to use his first State of the Union address to ease concerns and to offer an open hand to Republicans. Obama will seek the bipartisan cooperation that has so far eluded him, but has now become a political necessity in the wake of a surprising GOP Senate victory in Massachusetts.

Obama addresses the nation at 6 p.m. PST, but in excerpts released this afternoon by the White House, he outlined the issues that he hopes will jump-start his sophomore year when the entire House and a third of the Senate is facing an electorate angered by the lack of progress on domestic issues.

“We face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope -- what they deserve -- is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics,” Obama will say.


“Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it’s time for something new. Let’s try common sense. Let’s invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let’s meet our responsibility to the people who sent us here,” he will say.

For days, aides have dribbled out the bulk of Obama’s message designed to refocus the administration after a year in which his main domestic hope, the overhaul of healthcare, went through an agonizing and divisive legislative debate that failed to yield a resolution. Separate versions have passed the House and Senate, and congressional leaders are still trying to figure out how to proceed.
Obama will call for healthcare to remain on the agenda.

“By the time I’m finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Co-pays will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small-business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should the people in this chamber,” he plans to say.

Obama will spend the bulk of his speech on the economy, which polls show most people think he has neglected during the healthcare fight. Obama will call for tax credits to stimulate job creation and more money for education. He will sound his oft-repeated themes including calling for jobs in green industries such as alternative energy.

Obama will also emphasize fiscal discipline -- an overture to political independents, who have become fickle, supporting Obama in his presidential race but, according to polls, recently moving to the conservative side.

As part of the pitch to independents and fiscal conservatives in his own party, Obama will seek a three-year freeze on some discretionary domestic spending, not including such big-ticket items as the social services budget and defense. He is also expected to announce that he will create a bipartisan deficit-reduction task force, a scaled-down version of the plan rejected this week by the Senate.

But it will be atmospherics that are likely to be most remembered from Obama’s first official State of the Union and his third speech to a joint session of Congress.

With the nation struggling with 10% unemployment and voter anger over the government’s bailout of Wall Street and its huge pay packages and bonuses, how Obama reassures his listeners will be crucial to political success of his programs.

Also crucial are the newly reinvigorated Republicans, who will shortly swear in their 41st senator, giving them some voice in what has so far been a debate within the governing Democratic Party on key issues such as healthcare.

Throughout the day, top Republicans such as House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio took a wait-and-see position, arguing that they wanted to hear Obama speak to the economy and jobs, the main issues with which voters are concerned. One of the recent GOP victors, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who won just two months ago, will give the official Republican response.

The president will acknowledge that his administration has fared poorly in explaining its issues and thinking. His aides in recent days have said that Obama will give a more forceful narrative of how the nation got into its current doldrums and how he will lead forward on such crucial issues as global warming, immigration reform, Wall Street regulation and education of the next generation.

Obama will only spend a third of his address on foreign issues, but is expected to discuss the ongoing war on terrorism in light of a failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a jetliner en route to Detroit. He will also discuss his ordered escalation of troops to Afghanistan, hopes to lessen the U.S. presence in Iraq and nuclear issues involving Iran and North Korea.

Obama is scheduled to travel to Florida tomorrow to announce $8 billion for high-speed rail development; to Maryland on Friday to speak to a House Republican retreat; and to New Hampshire next Tuesday to talk about job creation.

-- Michael Muskal

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