Will Obama's message Tuesday win back independents?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 21, 2011 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, midway through his term and mindful of positioning himself for next year's re-election campaign, will use the annual State of the Union address Tuesday night to recast himself to voters and regain the confidence of centrists and independents.

Expect the economy to serve as the major focus of the speech, both short-term job creation and his plans for long-term stability, with a secondary theme being a call for civility and compromise.

"The great majority of the speech will be on the steps that the president believes our country has to take to continue that economic recovery," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

That reflects voters' priorities in the latest polls and the message from last November's elections that gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives and a more robust Senate minority.

Since then, Obama has seen his approval rating rebound, now averaging around 50 percent, after he compromised with Republicans in the post-election lame-duck session of Congress. In addition, Obama's emotional speech at a memorial service for the victims of the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson, when he called for civility, also boosted his standing.

Recent surveys show him gaining ground with centrist and independent voters, whom he carried in 2008 but who tilted Republican in November. They are critical to his chance for re-election, and he's pitching his politics to appeal to them. Forty percent of Americans now consider him moderate, up 10 points from a year ago, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week.

Obama's expected to strike a confident tone that the nation has turned the corner from economic crisis to a resumption of growth.

"He's got to shift the rhetoric in that direction," said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., a state Obama needs in 2012. "You can't give a down-in-the-mouth, negative, pessimistic speech at this point. People want to hear optimism."

He'll call on business to work with him to create jobs and bring unemployment down from its 9.4 percent rate. And he'll call on Congress to work with him in tackling long-term overhauls of the tax code and entitlement spending.

How specific he'll get isn't yet clear.

Obama must address the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other foreign policy concerns, but he'll focus far more on domestic issues. Talk of "green energy" is more likely to focus on job creation than on global warming.

In making the case for more civility in politics, Obama should get a symbolic boost Tuesday night from the dozens of Democratic and Republican lawmakers who've announced that they'll sit with a friend from the opposing party, bucking the tradition of partisan-bloc seating in the House chamber for the address.

"It's sort of like 'The Dating Game' around here," joked Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

White House aides have declined to say which, if any, recommendations from his bipartisan deficit commission he'll put forward, or how he'd rein in spending on Medicare, Social Security or defense.

Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said that Obama "needs to put some ideas on the table."

Jim Kessler is co-founder and vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic research group whose board recently included William Daley, Obama's new chief of staff. Kessler, whose group launched the idea of bipartisan seating at the speech, said: "I would love to hear him say that with the passage of health care, America's 85-year quest to construct a safety net is now complete and that America's major challenge going forward is long-term economic growth.

"It's important to shift the Democratic Party from one that's focused primarily on economic security to one that's focused primarily on economic growth."

Anticipating Obama's economic focus, Republicans have chosen House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to give the televised GOP response to the speech. Ryan, 40, has stirred controversy with his approach to budget-cutting and a proposal to let younger workers set aside Social Security tax payments for "personal retirement accounts."

Republicans say they want to cut spending this year to 2008-09 levels and they're eager for specifics on how Obama would go along.

One potential area for bipartisan compromise would be lowering the overall corporate tax rate while eliminating exemptions. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., already has begun hearings on that.

Conservative Republicans have a long list of traditional Democratic favorites they want to cut funding for, including the Legal Services Corp., the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Amtrak.

Democrats want the president to make it clear he'll resist Republican efforts to unravel their priority programs such as health care and financial regulation.

And while they anticipate that Obama will deliver conciliatory rhetoric, they don't expect him to kowtow to Republicans. "He's too cagey to cave," said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo.

On other potential topics that Obama might include, Kessler predicted that any discussion of gun control would be limited to something both parties might agree upon, perhaps improving databases that track prohibited buyers.

If Obama revisits immigration policy at all, Kessler said he'd like to see him create a bipartisan commission and ask a high-profile Republican — perhaps former President George W. Bush — to serve as co-chair.

A poll released this week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that the economy and jobs are top priorities for Americans, at 87 percent and 84 percent respectively. Concerns about illegal immigration, crime, the environment and moral issues all registered below 50 percent. While health care was a slightly higher priority, Obama's overhaul remains divisive, and he's unlikely to dwell on it as he looks forward.

Obama also may consult the speeches that Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton gave at their own two-year marks. Each was more unpopular then than Obama is now. Reagan in 1983 confronted unemployment above 10 percent. Clinton in 1995 faced hostile Republicans who'd taken over Congress.

Both won re-election.

Reagan promised that American business would rebound and pressed Congress to rescue Social Security. He asked that "in these next two years, men and women of both parties, every political shade, concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government, not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics." The eventual Social Security fix raised taxes and the retirement age to stabilize its finances for another generation.

In 1995, Clinton acknowledged his party's losses as a call for change, and urged both parties to work together to show Americans: "We hear you."

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