Wisconsin Voters And The State Of The Union

President Obama is expected to lay out broad themes in tonight's State of the Union address, with the economy the primary focus. On Wednesday, the president will travel to Wisconsin, a state where Republicans swept all of the major races this past November. NPR's Don Gonyea talks to voters in Wisconsin about their feelings toward Obama, and what they hope to hear in Tuesday's State of the Union address.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Tonight, in his State of the Union Address, President Obama is expected to lay out a number of broad themes, all with one common denominator: America's struggling economy. The White House is signaling that the president will call on the new Republican majority in the House to work with him to address the deficit and to invest in programs he says are critical to long-term economic stability.

Tomorrow, the president will take his message out of the capitol, out into the country. He'll head to Wisconsin, a state where Republicans swept all of the major races this past November.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea is already in Wisconsin. He has this report.

DON GONYEA: In Wisconsin this week, politics shares the stage with the topic about which there is no disagreement - football.

The lunchtime crowd at American Legion Post 82 in Port Washington is having some fun with President Obama's loyalty to the Chicago Bears, the team the Green Bay Packers eliminated on Sunday. 62-year-old Todd Brown notes that the president was planning a trip to the Super Bowl if the Bears made it.

Mr. TODD BROWN: How come he's not going to come 'cause the Packers won? That's my question. But he represents the United States. He doesn't just represent Chicago.

GONYEA: Football aside, Brown agreed to talk politics for just a bit. He says he's an Independent who leans Democratic, but who did not vote for President Obama two years ago. And he says he feels pretty good about the state of the economy.

Mr. BROWN: Well, no, as long as it keeps growing, it's OK. As long as it keeps growing, it's OK.

GONYEA: Tonight he says he simply wants to hear how Mr. Obama will keep the economy growing at what he sees as a slow but steady rate. Brown also says he's pleased with the Republican gains in Congress.

Mr. BROWN: Well, it's a check and balance, yeah. It's check and balance.

(Soundbite of lunch room)

Mr. FRANK WALLACE: And I'm going to have two brats with fried onions.

Unidentified Woman: I don't have brats today.

Mr. WALLACE: You don't have brats today?

Unidentified Woman: Meatloaf and mashed potatoes is our specialty every day.

Mr. WALLACE: I'm leaving. I'm leaving. No, give me...

GONYEA: That's Frank Wallace ordering his lunch at the American Legion Hall. He says he's semi-retired but runs his own construction business. He's a Republican. He says he'll be watching tonight's speech and looking to see if the president has indeed gotten the message that voters sent in November.

Mr. WALLACE: Whether you like him or not, I didn't vote for him and I wouldn't vote for him again in two years, no matter what, but I would at least give him some credit if I saw him making some of those, you know, centrist moves.

GONYEA: Wallace is just as interested that a congressman from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, has been selected by Republicans to deliver the official response to the State of the Union.

Mr. WALLACE: If there's anything in the original State of the Union address that is based on funny money or based on goofy numbers, he'll be able to point that out and he'll know that.

GONYEA: Port Washington is on Lake Michigan just north of Milwaukee. It's Republican territory. Head north about an hour or so and you get to the city of Sheboygan. It's a town that provides somewhat friendlier terrain for President Obama. This is a lakeshore community with a heavy reliance on manufacturing.

Jean Kittelson is the president of the local city council. Her office is officially nonpartisan. She won't say who she voted for in '08. I asked her about the president.

Ms. JEAN KITTELSON (President, Sheboygan City Council): I think he's doing fine. The president has a tough job. It's tough.

GONYEA: As for what Kittelson wants to hear from Mr. Obama tonight?

Ms. KITTELSON: I want to hear a message of hope. I want to hear a message of optimism that our economy will turn around, that jobs will be created and keep things positive, keep the hope going.

GONYEA: For the president, 2008 must seem a long time ago in a place like Wisconsin. Back then, he easily carried the state. But last year, Democrats lost control of the Wisconsin governor's office, a U.S. Senate seat, two U.S. House seats and both chambers of the state legislature.

Tonight, and with his visit to the town of Manitowoc tomorrow, Mr. Obama hopes to find a message that again resonates with independent voters in an important battleground states like this, knowing that his success now and his political prospects in two years may depend on it.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Milwaukee.

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