Obama's State Of The Union Comes Amid Trying Times

President Obama delivers his first State of the Union speech Wednesday in the face of some serious challenges: Unemployment is at 10 percent, the White House is on the defensive and Democrats are angrily griping at one another. But the speech is a chance for Obama to speak directly to the American people.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Madeleine Brand in California.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel in Washington.

President Barack Obama heads up to Capitol Hill tonight to deliver his first State of the Union address. With unemployment at 10 percent and health care at a stalemate, the White House is on the defensive. But we expect the president to say that he'll still push for that major legislative initiative of his and that he'll propose programs to create new jobs as well.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And we should say at the outset that we were both at the White House today getting a sense of the presidents thinking. How would you describe what he has to do today?

LIASSON: Well, he has to do a lot. He has to reconnect with the middle class, convince them he has a plan to create jobs and turn the economy around, somehow acknowledge what happened in Massachusetts without abandoning his agenda and angering his own base. And while he's at it, he has to explain how he plans to control the deficit. Its a very, very tall order. Its kind of a daunting political task tonight. And I actually cant think of a president whos given a State of the Union facing a more difficult political landscape.

SIEGEL: On health care, I havent heard the idea that thats it, its over. We're finished with health care. They want at least give it one more go.

LIASSON: I think the way he's going to treat health care, they dont really know what to do on health care. The Democrats in the White House are still trying to figure it out. I think the idea is that he will say that everybody is taking a deep breath, stepping back. That certainly is the message from Capitol Hill. They are still assessing whats doable, whats passable. I mean, push it through on reconciliation, there are a lot of Democrats, moderate ones, in the Senate who are absolutely opposed to that.

SIEGEL: Yeah, that would be without getting 60 votes.

LIASSON: Right. Do something more minimal, a package of the quote, "just be popular parts." Of course its unclear if the popular parts hang together without a lot of other infrastructure and whether Republicans would vote for anything.

SIEGEL: Yeah. The Republicans now have 41 votes. President Obama is clearly frustrated by whats happened in the Senate where every item nowadays needs 60 votes to end debate and therefore pass. How does he address Republicans in that situation?

LIASSON: The White House is intent on making the Republicans, now that they have 41 votes, accountable. They're even being referred to up there as the governing party. I mean, that they have a responsibility for governing because they have the veto.

SIEGEL: So they can prevent anything from happening.

LIASSON: Yes, they can prevent anything from happening. And I think the White House is very frustrated. The public hasnt seemed to have held the Republicans accountable even as they have blocked, up until now, so many of the presidents initiatives. I think that the president is going to both reach out to them because he knows that his brand and something that the public likes is bipartisanship, an effort to meet in the center, but he's also going to challenge them.

SIEGEL: In fact, he's going to say, when you Republicans had only 40 seats in the Senate, okay, you could it was our fault that we couldnt get things done with 41, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

LIASSON: I think there's going to be some version of that.

SIEGEL: You said there is no prior experience you can think back to. And you watched more than one president in the White House. No prior experience that Mr. Obama may draw upon?

LIASSON: Well, here's the problem with that. I've been wracking my brains on the prior experiences. And, of course, I thought about Bill Clinton, who lost both houses of Congress and came back with a very powerful State of the Union address in 1995 that set him up nicely to win reelection. He triangulated. And he said we can work together or you can send me a bunch of bills and then we'll rack up a pile of vetoes.

He showed some strength. He pushed back against them. But he did triangulate. But he had someone to triangulate with. The president still has his own party very much in control of both houses of Congress. Ronald Reagan, I think is the model that the White House would look to more. He stayed the course wasnt necessarily defiant, but he stayed the course, took a big hit in the midterms, came back and got reelected.

SIEGEL: People at the White House like to say that when he was at 42 percent, he was a dithering old man in the eyes of the media. When he got reelected in 1984, he was the great communicator.

LIASSON: Something like that they hope will happen to President Obama.

SIEGEL: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

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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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