Image: President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress.
Michael Reynolds  /  EPA
One year into office, President Obama faces urgent challenges as he addresses lawmakers gathered in the Capitol and a prime-time television audience at home for the constitutionally mandated ritual of U.S. governing.
updated 1/27/2010 7:52:18 AM ET 2010-01-27T12:52:18

President Barack Obama will try to pivot past rocky times for the nation and himself Wednesday night in his first State of the Union address, offering a skeptical public repackaged plans to energize the economy, stem a tide of red ink and strengthen anti-terror defenses.

He'll also be trying to revive his own "yes we can" image.

One year into office, Obama faces urgent challenges as he addresses lawmakers gathered in the Capitol and a prime-time television audience at home for the constitutionally mandated ritual of U.S. governing. The country has lost more than 7 million jobs since the recession began two years ago, unemployment is stuck at 10 percent and the government is grappling with a record $1.4 trillion deficit.

Obama's presidency is troubled as well. The percentage of Americans giving a thumbs-up to his performance has fallen precipitously, from 74 percent when he took office to 56 percent now. He hasn't had a breakout legislative or diplomatic victory, and he's failed to break Washington's partisanship as promised. Then last week, an upset Republican victory in a Massachusetts Senate race threw Obama's signature domestic priority, a sweeping health care overhaul, into jeopardy and shined a spotlight on the economic angst now being taken out on him.

Against that backdrop, Obama will be using one of the presidency's largest megaphones to press several themes. They will be fleshed out in greater detail afterward, as the president travels to Florida on Thursday for a post-speech focus on jobs and when he submits his fiscal 2011 budget to Congress on Monday.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia will deliver a televised response Wednesday night, two months after putting his state in GOP hands in one of the party's major recent election victories.

Among the freshly sharpened messages Obama intends to weave through his remarks: He's a fighter for struggling families and against wealthy special interests; he relates personally to Americans' everyday concerns; he has come far in one year but has made some errors along the way and has much more to do. And he does not intend to fling aside an ambitious agenda on health care, energy, education, immigration and other issues in favor of trimmed-down goals.

In fact, Obama will argue that his sweeping ideas for change are as much a part of putting the economy back on track as more immediate job creation and economic security proposals.

"If we don't get that stuff right, then it's going to be very difficult for us to answer the anxieties that people feel over the long term," Obama said this week in an interview with ABC News. "I am not backing off the need for us to tackle these big problems in a serious way."

What he'll say
Advisers say the president doesn't plan to reshape his agenda as much as better explain and defend it:

  • He'll map a way forward for mired health care legislation, now facing several options for passage, all problematic. Obama will also acknowledge the long, messy debate that has soured many on the idea and try to make a far-reaching overhaul relevant and attractive again to voters. "We have to move forward in a way that recaptures that sense of opening things up more," he told ABC.
  • He'll talk about why he thinks the nation's future economic health also depends on reshaping financial industry regulations to place tighter rules on Wall Street, another immediate domestic priority. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama will detail "what he would find acceptable on that."
  • He'll renew his call for immigration reform, a volatile issue once considered a first-year priority but lately sent to the back burner. Obama is expected to prod Congress to craft a plan to tighten the border with Mexico, crack down on employers who exploit illegal workers and resolve the status of roughly 12 million people who live in the U.S. illegally.
  • He will give specifics on how he believes Washington's combative, partisan, gridlocked way of doing business can be changed.

On national security, Obama will detail his administration's efforts to combat terrorism around the globe, which have seen some success but have been overshadowed by the attempted airline attack on Christmas Day and political difficulties in Pakistan. He also will address the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nuclear disputes with Iran and North Korea, this month's devastating earthquake in Haiti and his larger ambition to restore the U.S. image around the world.

Video: Obama seeks to reconnect with voters But bread-and-butter issues — lost jobs, difficulties paying for college or retirement, soaring deficits, anger at Wall Street fat cats — will dominate the speech.

"What he'll discuss more than anything is getting our economy moving again," Gibbs said.

The first priority is reversing persistent joblessness, and Obama is expected to push anew for job-creation proposals such as giving tax credits to small businesses to add workers and incentives to families to retrofit homes to make them more energy efficient. Neither proposal made it into a jobs bill passed by the House in December.

He also plans to propose modest new measures to help with the financial struggles of the middle class — money for child care, helping out aging parents, saving for retirement, and paying off college debt, for example.

Aware of increasing voter concern about the government's red ink, Obama also plans to talk about various efforts at what Gibbs called "a slow chipping away" at the deficit. The White House announced Obama would ask Congress to freeze spending on some domestic programs for three years — though the savings would total just $250 billion over 10 years, a tiny fraction of the annual deficit.

Other issues likely to get a mention in Obama's speech, still being crafted on Tuesday.

  • A record $8.8 billion in federal funding in the next fiscal year to help military families with child care, counseling, financial services and other programs, a top priority for first lady Michelle Obama.
  • The president's campaign promise, as yet unfulfilled, to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
  • A new plan for a better and quicker response to bioterrorism threats.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: All presidents make mistakes, Gibbs says

  1. Closed captioning of: All presidents make mistakes, Gibbs says

    >> david gregory, thank you very much. robert gibbs is the white house press secretary. mr. gibbs, good morning to you.

    >> good morning, meredith. how are you?

    >> i'm great, thank you. you know, the president has his work cut out for him tonight. according to our poll, 58% of those asked feel the country is on the wrong track. that's a big number. what do they need to hear tonight that would convince them otherwise?

    >> well, look, i think the president will discuss what many americans are feeling, that the past year was one of the most challenging in our nation's history, but he'll outline a plan to get our economy -- to continue to get our economy back on track to make us safer and more secure, to make college more affordable, to cut spending here in washington and outline what he believes it will be a hopeful decade for this country.

    >> let's talk about tone for a minute. will he strike a note of contrition for the mistakes that he's made over the past year, because every president makes mistakes?

    >> every president makes mistakes, including barack obama . he's not been shy about admitting that. we've made mistakes here. i think what you'll hear the president, though, focus most on tonight are plans to cut taxes for small businesses that hire workers, how do we get credit flowing again from community banks to many small businesses , eliminating capital gains for investment in those small businesses . as i said, changing the way washington works, cutting spending here in this town to get us back on a path towards fiscal responsibility . all of those things the president will outline here tonight.

    >> speaking about cutting the deficit here, the spending, he will announce this three-year budget freeze. already some critics are saying it's just a drop in the bucket. others are wondering how cutting social spending will create jobs, which is number one in most people's minds. so, what's his answer to that?

    >> well, understand this, meredith -- from 1995 to 2006, this portion of our budget grew by 90%. so, for critics out there that don't think this is something that we need to address -- we're never going to close our budget deficit if we don't take every step, not just one or two steps, but every step that we need to control spending. the president believes we have to put ourselves back on a path towards fiscal responsibility , and freezing nonsecurity spending in this budget is one of those paths. it's not everything that we have to do to close our budget deficit , but it's certainly one of those steps.

    >> but it is, again, it's only one-eighth of the budget . i think that's why critics are focusing on that.

    >> well, again, understanding this, meredith -- in 1995 -- between 1995 and 2006, this part of the budget doubled. so, if it's one-eighth of the budget now, it was one-sixteenth then. if we can't address this with the one part of the budget , how will you do that for the other seven-eighths? we'll cut programs that duplicate what other programs do in this government. it's exactly what families are doing around the kitchen table all over this country. they can't afford everything. they know what they have to spend money on, which in our case is security and investing in things like education, but they know that they can't afford everything. they've got to tighten their belt and they're going to start with some of those decisions just as the president is doing.

    >> very quickly, last year the president made a big push for health care reform , a health care reform bill. now the senate majority leader, harry reid , is suddenly saying there's no rush. does the president agree with that, or again tonight will he push for that reform?

    >> we'll discuss health care reform tonight, meredith, because even as millions of americans are working harder for less pay, one of the reasons they're taking home less money is their skyrocketing health care costs. we were close to having reform a few weeks ago. we're still just that close, and the president will discuss why we can't walk away from making sure that the struggling the high cost of health care doesn't choke off an economic recovery.

    >> does he still feel there's a rush?

    >> we still have an urgent problem in this country, because as the president speaks tonight, more people will lose their insurance, more people will be discriminated against by an insurance company , and more people will see their health care costs go up if we don't do anything.

    >> all right. white house press secretaryrobert gibbs, i'm sure we'll be talking to you in the days ahead. thank you so much.

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