Obama Takes The Capitol Stage On Surer Footing

President Obama waves before his first State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2010. i i

hide captionPresident Obama waves before his first State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2010.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Obama waves before his first State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2010.

President Obama waves before his first State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2010.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Obama will deliver his second State of the Union address Tuesday night, riding a boost in approval ratings and a temporary respite from the harsh political rhetoric that has marked much of his two years in the White House.

And when the president faces members of Congress assembled before him, he'll also see some unusual aisle-crossing.

A handful of elected officials say they will break with tradition and sit with colleagues from the other party in a show of comity to honor Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, critically injured in the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson.

It's a reality seemingly transformed from the one Obama faced in November, when he was chastened by his party's historic midterm election drubbing, including loss of control of the U.S. House, which was seen as a repudiation of his agenda.

But a surprisingly productive lame-duck session of Congress in December, nominal improvement in consumer confidence, and a well-received speech at a memorial in Tucson for victims of the shootings have firmed up the political ground for Obama in advance of the speech.

The GOP Response

Nearly everything that happens on Capitol Hill has symbolic meaning. By choosing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to deliver the official response to President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, the Republicans are sending the nation two messages about their priorities: Undo much of what Obama has done, but undo it in a civil way.

In his seventh term, Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. The man loves numbers so much, he has crafted his own plan to deal with the country's economic crisis: A Roadmap for America's Future.

Since Congress returned in early January, Ryan has been a ringmaster of the Republicans' rush to repeal Obama's health care legislation. Together with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Ryan relentlessly preaches deficit reduction and fiscal conservatism.

Because the Republicans "have identified budget reduction, fiscal discipline and job creation as their themes," former Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD) says, Ryan "is probably the best responder."

Linton Weeks (Read more)

Focus On Leaner, Smarter Government

The president is expected to use his new footing — perhaps as fragile as the economic gains that have helped steady him — to focus on job creation and a "leaner and smarter" government.

In a video e-mailed to supporters in recent days, Obama said his "No. 1 focus is going to be making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing and we are creating jobs — not just now, but well into the future."

He is also expected to defend the more popular aspects of the 2010 health care overhaul, while pledging to improve it by working with Republicans, who have vowed to undo the legislation.

On Monday, in a release clearly timed for the eve of the president's speech, the administration announced that federal officials last year recovered more than $4 billion in taxpayer money by clamping down on Medicare, Medicaid and drug fraud — a record haul. Officials also touted aspects of the health care legislation that they say help ferret out fraud.

Republicans have chosen Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's low-key point man on budget and deficit issues, to deliver the GOP response to Obama's speech. Ryan helped lead the House repeal of the health care legislation last week, an effort expected to be halted either in the Democratic-controlled Senate or by the president's veto pen.

Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, head of the House Tea Party Caucus, has said she will also deliver an online video response.

Increasingly Rare Opportunity To Connect

History shows that State of the Union addresses typically have little effect on a president's standing with the American public (the most recent exception was President Clinton's talk in 1998). But Obama's nationally televised speech provides him an increasingly rare chance to directly address the American people.

"Every president takes office with an immense opportunity to talk to the American people, and every day that opportunity shrinks," says Dan Schnur, a longtime GOP strategist and presidential campaign veteran who chairs the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

"A moment like Tucson or 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing re-enlarges that window, and this is a chance for the president to take advantage of that," says Schnur, communications director for Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential run.

During his address last year, Obama criticized the Supreme Court's recent ruling on campaign finance, while Justice Samuel Alito, seated below the president's dais, shook his head and mouthed "not true." A few months earlier, Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted "you lie" during the president's health care speech to a joint session of Congress.

Tuesday night, the atmosphere is expected to be quite different, with Obama attempting to set a new tone going into his 2012 re-election effort, and under the watchful eye of the American people — including a contingent from Tucson who will be watching, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, from the chamber's gallery. Those expected from Arizona are Giffords' intern Daniel Hernandez, credited with helping to save her life at the shooting scene; the family of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was killed in the shooting; and the medical personnel who treated victims.

Obama Rebound: Sustainable?

Some caution that reports of Obama's rebound are exaggerated, if not greatly.

There is a buzz about the president being more "pro-business," says poll analyst Mark Blumenthal. Obama has pledged to undo what he referred to as "just plain dumb" regulations, and named General Electric chief Jeffrey Immelt to head the White House panel on jobs and competitiveness.

But most Americans polled still perceive the economy to be pretty bad and likely have little idea who Immelt is, says Blumenthal of Pollster.com, who characterizes State of the Union popularity bumps as "largely the stuff of myth."

However, there is an "interesting wrinkle this year," he says: Obama's admittedly modest approval gains have come over a surprisingly short period of time.

His approval ratings over the past several weeks have risen from the mid-40s to around 50 percent. Last year, his approval rating had dipped below 50 percent before his first State of the Union address, and his party had just lost its 60-vote supermajority in the Senate.

"Generally, job approval ratings tend to move glacially over time, tracking with the economy unless there's a war or an invasion or a scandal," Blumenthal said. "It will be really interesting if we have reached a moment where people are perceiving a turn in the economy — that would be significant, more so than the lame duck."

Not a ticker-tape moment, to be sure, especially with the national unemployment rate hovering around 9.4 percent. But the modest improvement is consistent across a number of surveys, he says.

Establishing An Economic Narrative

Last year, Obama's State of the Union task was to shore up support for his foundering health care initiative and reassure his increasingly skeptical base that he was still the guy they voted for.

Unemployment then was at a stubborn 10 percent, the president acknowledged a deepening cynicism that Americans were feeling toward their government, and he characterized jobs as his administration's No. 1 focus.

In the past year, he and Democrats muscled through the health care legislation, and he made good on other speech promises, including the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay American service members.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says Obama's primary goal this time should be to "establish an economic narrative" for himself and the Democratic Party.

"Our economic narrative should be pretty easy: What Democrats stand for is rebuilding economic security for our families and for the middle class, and we have to fight to create good-paying, secure jobs," Lake says.

How? Cut war spending in Afghanistan and Iraq, she says, and advance tougher trade laws, help small businesses, engage in currency reform.

"The comeback of the president's popularity has not been among blue-collar workers," Lake says. "People are paying a lot of attention. Does he get this economy, and what is he going to do about it?"

She is among those who advise the president to dispense with the laundry list speech and focus on "approach and values."

Obama has indicated that he intends to stake out common ground, "even as we're having some very vigorous debates."

Though few expect that common ground will be easy to come by, experienced political hands like Schnur see opportunity for the president to "lay the groundwork for this type of approach, and for more cooperation."

Obama's recovery in the eyes of the American public may be fragile, but, Schnur says, "it's better to be a mile outside of hell heading out" than the reverse.

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