WASHINGTON — Vilified by the Republicans who want his job, President Barack Obama will stand before the nation Tuesday night determined to frame the election-year debate on his terms, promising his State of the Union policy address will offer an economic blueprint that will “work for everyone, not just a wealthy few.”
In a video released Saturday to millions of campaign supporters, Obama said he will concentrate on four areas designed to restore economic security for the long term: manufacturing, energy, education, job training and a “return to American values.” The release came the same day as the South Carolina primary, where four Republican contenders competed in the latest contest to determine Obama’s general election rival.
The nationally televised speech will not be just a traditional pitch about the year ahead. It will be perhaps Obama’s biggest stage to make a sweeping case for a second term.
“We can go in two directions,” the president said in the video. “One is toward less opportunity and less fairness. Or we can fight for where I think we need to go: building an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few.”
That line of argument about income inequality is emerging as a defining theme of the presidential race, as Republicans are in their own fierce battle to pick a nominee to challenge Obama in the fall.
By notifying the millions of supporters on his email list, Obama gave advance notice to his Democratic base in a bid to generate an even larger audience for Tuesday’s address.
Obama’s preview did not mention national security. He is not expected to announce new policy on that front in a speech expected to be dominated by the economy — the top concern of voters.
Obama is expected to offer new proposals to make college more affordable and to ease the housing crisis still slowing the economy, according to people familiar with the speech. He will also promote unfinished parts of his jobs plan, including the extension of a payroll tax cut soon to expire.
His policy proposals will be less important than what he hopes they all add up to: a narrative of renewed American security. Obama will try to politically position himself as the one leading the fight for the middle class, with an overt call for help from Congress, and an implicit request for a second term from the public.
The timing comes as the nation is split about Obama’s overall job performance. More people than not disapprove of his handling of the economy, he is showing real vulnerability among the independent voters who could swing the election, and most Americans think the country is on the wrong track.
So his mission will be to show leadership and ideas on topics that matter to people: jobs, housing, college and retirement security.
The foundation of Obama’s speech is the one he gave in Kansas last month, when he declared that the middle class was facing a make-or-break moment and railed against the “you’re on your own” economics of the Republican Party. His theme then was about a government that ensures people get a fair shot to succeed.
That speech spelled out the values of Obama’s election-year agenda. The State of the Union speech will provide the details.
The White House sees the speech as a clear chance to outline a vision for re-election, yet carefully, without turning a national tradition into an overt campaign event.
On national security, Obama will ask the nation to reflect with him on a momentous year of change, including the end of the war in Iraq, the killing of al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring protests of peoples clamouring for freedom.
But it will all be secondary to jobs at home.
In a winter season of politics dominated by his Republican competition, Obama will have a grand stage to himself, in a window between Republican primaries. He will try to use the moment to refocus the debate as he sees it: where the country has come, and where he wants to take it.
In doing so, Obama will come before a divided Congress with a burst of hope because the economy — by far the most important issue to voters — is showing life.
The unemployment rate is still at a troubling 8.5 per cent, but at its lowest rate in nearly three years. Consumer confidence is up. Obama will use that as a springboard.
The president will try to draw a contrast of economic visions with Republicans, both his antagonists in Congress and the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.
Despite low expectations for legislation this year, Obama will offer short-term ideas that would require action from Congress.
His travel schedule following his speech, to politically important regions, offers clues to the policies he was expected to unveil.
Both Phoenix and Las Vegas have been hard hit by foreclosures. Denver is where Obama outlined ways of helping college students deal with mounting school loan debt. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Detroit are home to a number of manufacturers. And Michigan was a major beneficiary of the president’s decision to provide billions in federal loans to rescue General Motors and Chrysler in 2009.
For now, the main looming to-do item is an extension of a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, both due to expire by March. An Obama spokesman called that the “last must-do item of business” on Obama’s congressional agenda, but the White House insists the president will make the case for more this year.
If anything, Republicans say Obama has made the chances of co-operation even dimmer just over the last several days. He enraged Republicans by installing a consumer watchdog chief by going around the Senate, where Republicans had blocked a vote on ratifying his nominee. He then rejected a major oil pipeline project from Canada to the Gulf Coast that Republicans have embraced.
Obama is likely, once again, to offer ways in which a broken Washington must work together. Yet that theme seems but a dream given the gridlock he has been unable to change.
The State of the Union atmosphere offered a bit of comity last year, following the mass shooting in Tucson that severely wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. And yet 2011 was a year of utter dysfunction in Washington, with the partisanship getting so bad that the government nearly defaulted as the world watched in embarrassment.
The address remains an old-fashioned moment of national attention; 43 million people watched it on TV last year. The White House website will offer a live stream of the speech, promising graphics and other bonuses for people who watch it there, plus a panel of administration officials afterward who will respond to questions coming in through