WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) — President Barack Obama stands before a divided Congress for the first time Tuesday night to deliver his State of the Union policy address, a message expected to focus on creating jobs, whittling down the federal debt and narrowing the wide political chasm that splits Republicans from Democrats on just how to get that done.
The nationally televised address at the halfway point of his term also effectively marks the opening of Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election bid. It offers a chance to reset the political calculus after Republicans swept out the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in the November elections and gained ground in the Senate where they remain in the minority.
The president’s expected focus on the economy springs from voters’ overwhelming concern about the weak recovery, stubbornly high unemployment and an overall federal government debt that now tops $14 trillion. Those worries propelled the Republican wave in the last election.
Mr. Obama has adjusted quickly by showing a readiness to compromise with Republicans on taxes and shaking up his White House staff, adding important advisers who are seen as far friendlier to the business community, a Republican bastion.
In turn, Democrat Obama has seen his approval rating climb sharply since the Republican election landslide. His overall approval rating in an Associated Press-GfK poll released last week stood at 53 percent, 6 points higher than after the November congressional election.
Mr. Obama also has found help in a glimmer of better news about the economy. A survey released Monday by the National Association for Business Economics was more positive than at any time since the start of the Great Recession, the deepest economic decline in the United States since the 1930s. The survey showed that all major industry groups were seeing more demand for their products and services, a precursor to job growth.
While Mr. Obama was not expected to outline specifics, his message was likely to recommend targeted cuts in government spending and the federal budget, but also investment in education, infrastructure and scientific research that the president says will be necessary to keep America competitive in the future.
“I think what our focus tonight is how is America going to win,” senior White House adviser Valerie Jarett told CBS’ “The Early Show” Tuesday. “And what we have to do is invest, but we have to invest wisely. … We want to make sure that we are creating that ingenuity that this lead to the jobs of the future.
“But we also have to make sure that government is smart and that we’re cutting programs that are not working, that we’re tightening our belt, that we’re streamlining processes. And we have to tackle the deficit in a responsible way. So we have a robust agenda, but we believe that we can do targeted investment and also cut where the budget needs to be cut.”
Three areas consume the vast majority of government spending: defense and two programs for older Americans, Medicare health insurance and Social Security pension payments.
Cutting any of those is politically dangerous. Defense cuts hurt big businesses, a major Republican constituency, which have huge contracts to build weapons systems and can produce even greater unemployment. Cutting into benefits for older Americans has always produced a political backlash that has quickly washed away changes in those programs.
There is some expectation Mr. Obama also will reprise a December speech he gave that declared the United States now faces a new “Sputnik moment” – and must respond with a new American vigor to global competition.
He was expected to return to that theme, recalling the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the first Earth-orbiting satellite, ahead of the United States. He intends to say the U.S. is again facing challenges from abroad, this time from fast-growing economies in China, India and throughout Southeast Asia.
In his travels to Asia and during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent trip to Washington, Mr. Obama has said he has been struck by the rapid rise of that region and the laser-like focus on competing in the global economy.
In his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday, Mr. Obama also highlighted free trade as a way to increase U.S. exports and put Americans to work.
“That’s how we’ll create jobs today,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s how we’ll make America more competitive tomorrow. And that’s how we’ll win the future.”
But finding the money for programs to boost competitiveness is the problem. He set off alarms among Republicans when he spoke of investments in education, innovation and infrastructure as the way to provide a sounder economic base.
“Any time they want to spend, they call it investment, so I think you will hear the president talk about investing a lot Tuesday night,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We’ll take a look at his recommendations. We always do. But this is not a time to be looking at pumping up government spending in very many areas.”
The second-ranking House Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor, closed ranks with McConnell, saying, “We want America to be competitive” but “the investment needs to occur in the private sector” rather than be the result of more government spending.
Mr. Obama’s speech comes less than three weeks after an assassination attempt on Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, who was shot in the head during a one-man rampage that left six dead and 13 wounded. Among those who will sit with first lady Michelle Obama during the president’s speech will be the family of a 9-year-old girl who was killed, an intern to Giffords who rushed to help her at the shooting, and trauma surgeons who have treated the wounded lawmaker.
In an attempt at unity and toning down the often vitriolic political rhetoric, some Democratic and Republican lawmakers will sit together at Mr. Obama’s speech, breaking with the tradition of sitting on opposite sides of the House chamber.
“We can be more civil, but let’s not lose our passion,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told “The Early Show.” “Some of my favorite debates were with a guy named Ted Kennedy who had passion like I haven’t seen before or since.”
Mr. Obama’s speech will also give nods to American interests around the globe, with a traditional foreign policy section that will cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism threats and diplomacy. But his primary goal is for those watching to emerge with more confidence about the economy of the country and more clarity about his vision for it.
But the contrast between the two parties’ visions remains stark, and where to slash spending, and by how much, will drive much of the debate for the rest of 2011.
Republicans have chosen Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who as chairman of the House Budget Committee is an emerging voice for the party on behalf of spending cuts, to deliver the televised response to Mr. Obama’s address. He is planning to promote budget cuts as essential to responsible governing.
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