President Obama speaks to a town hall-style meeting in Elyria, Ohio, on Jan. 22 as part of his "White House to Main Street Tour." Reconnecting with the middle class is one of President Obama's key challenges ahead of Wednesday night's State of the Union address.
President Obama speaks to a town hall-style meeting in Elyria, Ohio, on Jan. 22 as part of his "White House to Main Street Tour." Reconnecting with the middle class is one of President Obama's key challenges ahead of Wednesday night's State of the Union address. Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama delivers his first official State of the Union address Wednesday night to an increasingly skeptical and divided national audience.
It's a far different reality from the one he faced a year ago, when he gave his first major speech as president while riding stratospheric approval ratings. Then, a large majority of Americans saw the nation's first African-American president as someone who not only agreed with them on the issues but could unite a polarized country.
Now, his approval rating has dipped below 50 percent, and his party recently lost its 60-vote supermajority in the Senate.
Perhaps most troubling to the White House: A new survey shows that nearly twice as many Americans believe the president has paid more attention to the problems of banks as Americans who say he has been focused on middle-class issues.
- New NPR poll finds President Obama with a 49 percent approval rating. Of those surveyed, 55 percent said they opposed Obama's proposed health care overhaul.
- Both the latest NPR poll and a new poll from the Pew Center for the People & the Press found that the top priorities for Americans this year are the economy, jobs, and terrorism.
- New CNN poll finds 60 percent of Americans say Obama paid more attention to bankers’ problems than those of middle class.
- Republicans say the president should shift from health care and focus on jobs, debt and terrorism.
- Supporters want Obama to stay the course and make the connection between his proposed health care overhaul and the middle class.
Faced with those challenges, Obama has a significant task: reassuring his restive base and fellow Democrats that his ambitious agenda lives on, while also wooing disillusioned moderates and independents with a jobs program, initiatives that target the middle class, and a proposed three-year government freeze on discretionary spending.
Leadership And Tone
"This is a leadership moment," says Democratic strategist Scott Parven. "He needs to focus like a laser beam on the anxious middle class and make the connection between health care reform and the middle class."
"There's a deficit in understanding," Parven says.
Even Obama's staunchest supporters say that the sausage-making involved in fashioning the health care overhaul has turned off many voters. The latest NPR poll finds that 55 percent of Americans now say they oppose the president's health care proposal.
"People just don't trust Washington," says Gina Glantz, a former national campaign manager for Bill Bradley and former senior adviser to SEIU President Andrew Stern. "Ask people about health care, and they say something should be done, but that Washington will screw it up," she says. "And abandoning it, something you've worked on for a year, doesn't help."
The president, Glantz says, needs to verbalize a strategy for the country and avoid tactics for the midterm elections.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says that the president will be "feisty" in parts of his speech. But the biggest open questions about Wednesday's address are what overall tone the president will take and whether he will defend his agenda — including comprehensive health care legislation now stalled indefinitely on Capitol Hill.
Or will Obama trim his sails in the face of a still-struggling economy, persistent high unemployment, and increasing voter anxiety about debt?
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee told NPR that he'd like the president to say that he has taken too many bites out of too many big apples in his first year. And to focus on "jobs, debt and terror."
Alexander's checklist tracks with what recent surveys from NPR and the Pew Center for People & the Press both found: The top priorities for Americans this year are the economy, jobs, and terrorism — with deficit reduction also in the top 10.
The White House has already said that the president in his speech will outline a menu of small initiatives aimed at helping middle-class families, from increasing child care tax credits and capping federal student loan payments to expanding retirement tax credits and increasing support for families caring for elderly relatives.
Senate Democrats are also working on an $80 billion job-creation bill that will be built largely on business tax breaks and using unspent money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Ahead of Wednesday's address, the president angered members of his own party with a call for a three-year freeze on discretionary spending. Obama will need to explain to his supporters how he can continue to advance his agenda under the freeze.
"The president suffers from a serious credibility problem," says Republican strategist John Feehery. "The across-the-board freeze is so full of caveats and loopholes that it can only be seen as the bad joke that it is."
In his address, Feehery says, Obama needs to show that he's willing to "slow down on his run for re-election and spend some time running the country."
And the Democratic-controlled Senate on Tuesday rejected the president's proposal for a bipartisan budget commission to examine ways to adjust the tax code and cut entitlement spending.
Democratic Party stalwarts were particularly incensed by the proposed spending freeze, expected to be outlined in Obama's 2011 budget, to be released Monday. But the White House defended the freeze as targeting programs that don't work or don't fit into the president's top commitments.
"The president's objectives haven't changed," said Rob Nabors, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget during a conference call Tuesday with reporters. "We're not giving up the priorities."
It will just take longer to realize some of the aims, he says.
But the word "triangulation" was already making the rounds.
"This isn't a plan of triangulation," Nabors insisted. "It's a plan of necessity."
On The Hill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, characterized the freeze, which the White House projects will save $250 billion over the next decade, as negligible. "We've been on quite a binge over the last 12 months," he said. "It's going to take a lot more than a modest freeze."
Stay The Course?
Obama comes before the nation without fulfilling his promise to close the military base at Guantanamo Bay within a year of his swearing in; with the controversial military ban on openly gay soldiers still intact; and with worsening conditions in the nation's two ground wars.
And he still faces an opposition party whose strategy has been to oppose, en masse, the president's major initiatives.
"When Republicans say they want you to fail, they mean it," says George Bruno, a former ambassador to Belize during the Clinton administration who now works for a business and government consulting group. "I don't think he understands that."