Facing a divided Congress and a dissatisfied nation, President Barack Obama will unveil a jobs-heavy agenda in his State of the Union address Wednesday, retooling his message more than his mission.
His goal: Get the economy, the confidence of voters and his own presidency on surer footing.
Obama's speech will be underpinned by two themes — reassuring millions of Americans that he understands their struggles and convincing people that he is working to change Washington even as he finds himself working within its old political ways.
The 9 p.m. EST address has enormous stakes for Obama. He rode a tide of voter frustration into office and now is getting smacked by it himself.
Obama will offer fresh detail about how he wants to help businesses hire again and how he hopes to salvage an overhaul of health care insurance. Yet for all the new wrinkles he offers, the speech 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 agenda will sound familiar. 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.
Obama also will prod Congress to enact new jobs legislation, seek a freeze on some domestic spending for three years and try to blunt the impact of a Supreme Court decision that gives corporations much more freedom to influence elections through political advertising.
Meanwhile, his 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, knowing the public angst about government bailouts and big-bank bonuses, also will position himself as a voice for working families. He has adopted the word "fight" to describe his stand against special interests. As spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday, "I don't doubt that at times he'll be feisty."
Foreign affairs and terrorist threats will get plenty of attention, too. Obama will give his assessment of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last two months have seen a shooting massacre at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas and an attempted terrorist attack on an airliner heading for Detroit.
The administration is coping with international nuclear standoffs in North Korea and Iran and a Mideast peace process that remains as vexing as ever. Obama is also 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. As is typical of Obama on big speeches, he was working up to the last minute to craft it while his team 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 jobs-focused appearances, and when he submits his 2011 budget to Congress on Monday.
On health care, Obama will map a way forward for legislation that is suddenly mired; Brown's win in Massachusetts eliminated the minimum of 60 Democratic votes in the Senate that Obama needed to push past Republican delays and get a final bill passed. Obama planned to acknowledge that the long, messy health care debate has soured many on the idea, and he will try to make a far-reaching plan attractive to voters.
The president also will renew his call for immigration reform, a volatile issue once considered a first-year priority but lately sent to the back burner.
The Republican response to Obama's speech will be delivered Wednesday night by Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, two months after he put his state in GOP hands in one of the party's major recent election victories.
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