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NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: The State of the Union speech is always an important milestone for any administration. But presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton says for President Obama tonight, the stakes are higher than usual.
FRED GREENSTEIN: 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.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama badly needs to change the subject after last week's special election in Massachusetts. As he told a gathering of U.S. mayors last week, the subject he wants to start talking about is jobs.
BARACK OBAMA: You can expect a continued, sustained and relentless effort to create good jobs for the American people. I will not rest until we've gotten there.
HORSLEY: 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, which Mr. Obama once hoped to finish last summer, instead dragged on and 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 Governor Jack Markell, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, says Mr. Obama now has no choice but to focus on the jobs message.
JACK MARKELL: Even before Massachusetts, everybody was on alert that the voters are looking for solutions. And that's exactly what we've got to provide. There's a burden of proof, particularly amongst independent voters. And that's why we've got to prove we've got the right ideas to put people back to work in our states.
HORSLEY: Markell believes the Obama administration deserves some credit for helping to arrest the economic freefall. But he says there's a lot more work to be done.
MARKELL: We're not out of the woods. Although we do get reports from economists and the like, the best information that I get is from businesspeople on the street here in Delaware. And there's a long way to go before businesses are more confident. But I think we're certainly moving in that direction, as opposed to where we were a year ago.
HORSLEY: Although the government's economic stimulus measure has helped cushion the recession, unemployment still hovers at 10 percent. Mr. Obama's proposed more road and bridge building, incentives for home energy retrofits and a jobs tax credit. Economic adviser Christina Romer says the tax credit's designed to encourage more small businesses to hire.
CHRISTINA ROMER: 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. If we gave them some tax incentives, might they say, well, 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.
HORSLEY: As Mr. Obama underscores the jobs message tonight, he'll also be talking fiscal discipline, and he'll 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.
ROBERT GIBBS: I don't believe the president thinks that we should stop fighting for what's important to the middle class. 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.
HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.