WASHINGTON — The Barack Obama who'll deliver the State of the Union address Wednesday night faces a grimmer, more dubious audience than the popular new president who was riding high when he first addressed Congress last February did.
Then, Obama was celebrating the passage of a $787 billion economic stimulus and expecting Democrats soon to control 60 seats in the Senate, enough to fend off Republican filibusters and allow passage of a massive overhaul of the American health care system.
Now he labors under 10 percent national unemployment and a 48 percent job approval rating in the latest Gallup tracking poll. The stimulus’ true cost is now projected at $862 billion, and no health overhaul has passed yet. The Democrats lost their slam-dunk Senate supermajority when Republicans won the special election last week in Massachusetts. A testy electorate also seems eager to boot many Democrats out of Congress in this year’s midterm elections.
Obama’s address, his first official State of the Union, is expected to acknowledge these shifts and deliver a sharpened populist appeal to the middle class and independent voters, along with a focus on creating jobs and reining in government spending.
"I think the key in this speech, what he'll discuss more than anything, is getting our economy moving again," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.
The president also is likely to underscore his commitment to a health care bill, but to put it in the context of how it'll serve the nation’s economic well-being.
"The number one issue by far is jobs and the economy," said Cliff Young, a pollster at Ipsos Public Affairs. "People are worried about their pocketbooks. Foreign policy is still on the radar, but it's way down on the list. It's domestic issues."
Obama needs to be empathetic about people's problems and offer concrete solutions without overpromising, Young said. "There's a malaise, a sense that the government has not been able to get things done. The longer it lasts, the more likely he becomes known as the guy who can't get things done."
Aides already have said that the president will call for a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending. Republicans question his sincerity, however, with House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio saying that Americans should be “skeptical about his sudden change of heart.”
Bob Lehrman, former Vice President Al Gore’s chief speechwriter, who teaches about the craft, said that Obama must acknowledge voters’ doubts while standing his ground.
"On the one hand, he has to say, 'I understand the voters who are unhappy and I agree with them. I can see why they're unhappy.' That's one of the most potent ways of showing an audience you're a credible person, is to admit the other side has a point," Lehrman said.
"On the other hand, he cannot say, 'So I'm abandoning all the things I wanted to do.' He has to say, 'I will keep fighting for the things I campaigned for that brought me to the White House: jobs, health care, climate change.' " He also can take credit for containing the economic crisis.
Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, said in an interview Tuesday that the jobs issue "cuts across independents, Republicans and Democrats. That's not a partisan thing. It's an American thing." It's the same for health care, he said.
The details may have partisan ramifications, however. Trumka wants Obama to say that he'll pay for job creation by taxing "Wall Street and the super-rich."
Trumka and his members want to hear the president call for expanding collective bargaining. They also want him to push the Senate publicly to use the so-called budget reconciliation process to force through health policy changes on bare majority votes.
Another key audience for Obama is Congress, where bipartisanship rarely exists and Democrats are deeply concerned about their re-election prospects this fall.
Even as the president finalizes his prepared remarks, new economic challenges keep coming. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday set the fiscal 2010 deficit at $1.35 trillion, and projected that the national debt will reach $8.8 trillion this year, 60 percent of the gross domestic product. That threatens to drag down future economic growth.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate rejected an Obama-backed concept of creating a commission that would recommend ways to cut the federal debt. That rejection could prompt the president to create such a panel by executive order. Obama is to offer his fiscal 2011 budget on Monday.
Like past presidents, Obama is expected to touch on a list of issues before him, among them:
"The problem is he has two very different audiences: independents, who want to be reassured that he heard the message of Massachusetts, and progressives, who worry that Obama has forgotten the lessons of 2008 and their desire for fundamental changes in American policy," said Darrell West, an expert on governance at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center in Washington.
"He needs both of them to be successful."
(David Lightman contributed to this report.)
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