For Obama's State Of The Union, It's All About Jobs

President Obama i i

President Obama is seeking to reassure voters that he is determined to create jobs. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama

President Obama is seeking to reassure voters that he is determined to create jobs.

Charles Dharapak/AP

You can expect to hear a lot about jobs Wednesday night, as President Obama tries to defend his. Economic recovery is likely to dominate the president's State of the Union speech. Obama is looking to reconnect with recession-weary voters after last week's special election in Massachusetts put much of his agenda in doubt.

The State of the Union speech is an important milestone for any administration. But Princeton University presidential scholar Fred Greenstein says for Obama Wednesday night, the stakes are even higher than usual.

"The tide seems to be running against him suddenly, very forcefully, and it's important that he do what some presidents before him have done — which is to make a real correction and turn things around," Greenstein says.

Obama badly needs to change the subject after last week's special election in Massachusetts, in which Republican Scott Brown won a Senate seat the Democrats had taken for granted. And, as the president told a gathering of U.S. mayors last week, the subject he wants to turn to is jobs.

"You can expect a continued, sustained and relentless effort to create good jobs for the American people," Obama said. "I will not rest until we've gotten there."

Refocusing The National Agenda

If Obama had his way, he would have been paying more public attention to jobs long ago. But events kept getting in the way. The opening days of the president's new year were consumed by questions about the failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day. And talks about health care legislation — which Obama once hoped to finish last summer — dragged on.

If last week's Massachusetts vote didn't sound the death knell for health care legislation, it did at least signal a time out. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, says Obama now has no choice but to focus on the jobs message.

"Even before Massachusetts, everybody was on alert that the voters are looking for solutions," Markell says. "And that's exactly what we've got to provide. ... There's a burden of proof, particularly among independent voters. And that's why we've got to prove that we've got the right ideas to put people back to work in our states."

Long Way To Go

Markell says the Obama administration deserves some credit for helping to arrest the economic free fall. But he says there's a lot more work to be done.

"We're not out of the woods," Markell says. "And though we get reports from economists and the like, the best information I get is from business people on the street here in Delaware. And there's a long way to go before businesses are more confident. But we're certainly moving in that direction — as opposed to where we were a year ago."

Although the government's $787 billion economic stimulus package has helped cushion the recession, unemployment still hovers at 10 percent. Obama has proposed more road and bridge building, incentives for home energy retrofits, and a jobs tax credit. White House economic adviser Christina Romer says the tax credit is designed to encourage more small businesses to hire.

"These are businesses that are probably saying, 'I'm seeing demand start to come back. Maybe a year from now, I'll start doing some hiring,' " Romer says. "If we gave them some tax incentives, might they say, 'I was going to hire in 2011. Let me hire in 2010'? We know that would be good for them, good for the economy, good for workers that get jobs."

Making Other Issues Fit The Theme

As Obama underscores the jobs message Wednesday night, he'll also try to explain how other initiatives such as financial reform or clean energy legislation fit into a broader economic picture. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says even the long-running health care battle was ultimately about protecting workers' economic security.

"I don't believe the president thinks we should stop fighting for what's important to the middle class," Gibbs says. "No doubt there will be calls to abandon financial reform. [There will] be calls by some to abandon wanting taxpayers to be paid back for their loans to Wall Street. I don't think the president would agree with those."

Greenstein says if Obama succeeds in addressing voters' economic worries, many of their other doubts about the president may disappear. Over the weekend, Obama took time out from working on the speech to play basketball with his two daughters. Greenstein says the president needs a rhetorical slam-dunk Wednesday night.

"He's famous for rising to the challenge and doing well in the clutch and so on," Greenstein says. "He seems to almost need that added adrenaline to do his best."

If challenges add adrenaline, Obama should have all he can handle Wednesday night.

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