WASHINGTON (AP) — Seizing a chance to reconnect, President Barack Obama will use his first State of the Union address to try to persuade the people of a frustrated nation that he’s on their side, with a familiar sounding agenda recast to relate better to everyday struggles.
In a time of deep economic insecurity, Obama will use this stage on Wednesday to offer hope after a grueling, grinding first year of his presidency, aides say. For the many who think the United States is still on the wrong track, Obama will attempt to present a clearer sense of how everything he’s pursuing fits together to help.
And for jittery Democrats facing re-election this fall, Obama will seek to give them an agenda they can sell to voters.
Obama will propose ways to help the middle class. But any new ideas probably will play a supporting role to the plainspoken narrative he wants to tell, that his agenda works for people despite their growing doubts.
“Obviously you want to write a speech in a way that is interesting enough that people want to listen, and that leaves them feeling a sense of momentum and progress,” senior Obama adviser David Axelrod told The Associated Press. “But these are serious times. I don’t think this is a time for rhetorical flights of fancy.”
What to expect in the speech, which comes during a rocky period for Obama?
Heavy does of health care, despite the setbacks of the past week, and job creation. Obama will address the budget deficit, his bid to take on the financial industry, energy, education and immigration. All those issue, he says, fit into his plan to rebuild the economy.
On national security, he will address terrorist threats, the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan and nuclear disputes with Iran and North Korea.
Recent big events won’t escape notice, such as Haiti’s humanitarian crisis and the Supreme Court ruling allowing businesses and labor unions more power to influence elections. Obama will directly confront a seething frustration with Washington, evident in Republican Scott Brown’s stunning Senate victory in Massachusetts that rattled Democrats and cost Obama the voting bloc he needed in the Senate.
It all points to the message Obama wants to convey: Yes, I get it.
Obama is emerging from a year in Washington that, he now says, has left the public with a sense of “remoteness and detachment” from what he’s been trying to do.
The president says his agenda is not about him. But in important ways, this speech will be.
Moments like this are opportunities for presidents to take or lose command. Obama’s poll numbers on how he handles major issues have been dropping; less than half the people support his management of the economy, taxes and other issues. Unemployment is in double digits and terrorism fears are rising.
To regain his footing, Obama is putting himself on the side of the people. He’s challenging special interests on health care and banking. He’s reminding people that while he got an economic stimulus plan through, he bailed out Wall Street and the auto industry only by necessity.
Expect plenty of looking back, too. Obama wants people who may tune in only occasionally to what happens in Washington to know, as he sees it, that he got some things done this year, particularly on the economy.
Aides say the speech also will feature promises that Obama wants to return to — changing Washington and restoring trust in it. That case looks much more difficult than when Obama was sworn in, as partisanship is as entrenched as ever, and backroom side deals remain a messy part of legislation.
What the speech won’t do is reshape Obama’s agenda. He ran on it and will defend it anew.
“I didn’t run to kick these challenges down the road,” Obama told an audience in Ohio on Friday, seeming to find a campaign voice that had not appeared in so many of his remarks this year. “I ran for president to confront them — once and for all.”
Those familiar with the address say it reflects Obama’s tendency toward consistency and his opposition to a laundry list of programs. “It’s not going to be a series of disjointed offerings, poll-tested offerings,” Axelrod said. “It’s going to be a narrative about where he wants to lead, and why, and for whom.”
Obama gave his speechwriters an outline of what he wanted, and has exchanged drafts. He was spending more time on it over the weekend, and will keep doing so until he steps before a struggling nation on Wednesday night.