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Obama's goal: Get agenda moving, people believing

Jan. 27, 2010

AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- His presidency at a crossroads, President Barack Obama is promising in his first State of the Union address to solve the economic worries foremost on Americans' minds and become the transformative leader they thought they were getting.

Set to speak in prime time Wednesday night before a politician-packed House chamber and a TV audience of millions, Obama looked to change the conversation from how his presidency is stalling -- over a messy health care debate, a limping economy and the missteps that led to Christmas Day's barely averted terrorist disaster -- to how he is seizing the reins.

The president will devote about two-thirds of the 9 p.m. EST speech to the economy, emphasizing his ideas, some new but mostly old and explained anew, for restoring job growth, taming budget deficits and changing Washington's ways. These concerns are at the roots of voter emotions that drove supporters to Obama but now are turning on him as he governs.

To address economic fears, Obama will prod Congress to enact a second stimulus package and to provide new financial relief for the middle class. To acknowledge frustration at the government's habit of spending more than it has, he will seek a three-year freeze on some domestic spending (while proposing a 6.2 percent, or $4 billion, increase in the popular arena of education and supporting the debt-financed jobs bill) and announce he's creating a bipartisan deficit-reduction task force. To tackle the capital's polarized atmosphere, he will call on Republicans and Democrats to redouble efforts at cooperation.

Throughout, Obama aims to show he understands Americans' struggles to pay bills while big banks get bailouts and bonuses. Trying to position himself as a fighter for the regular guy, he'll urge Congress to blunt the impact of last week's Supreme Court decision handing corporations greater influence over elections.

But even before Obama spoke, many of the new proposals the White House revealed in advance were being dismissed -- on the right or the left -- as poorly targeted or too modest to make a difference.

The president will stand before a country dispirited by unemployment in double digits and federal deficits soaring to a record $1.4 trillion. He also faces a Democratic Party increasingly concerned about the fallen standing of a president they hoped would lead them through this fall's midterm elections.

With State of the Union messages constitutionally required and traditionally delivered at the end of January, Obama lucked into one of the presidency's biggest platforms just a week after Republicans scored an upset takeover of a Senate seat in Massachusetts. That election prompted hand-wringing over Obama's leadership and put a cloud of doubt over his agenda.

Senate allies, for instance, said Wednesday that a sizable, debt-financed package containing the proposals Obama wants is out of the question in the new climate and that they plan a trimmed-down measure with tax breaks for small businesses and help for state and local governments.

Republicans sought to capitalize on the Democrats' tough straits with their response, delivered by Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who took his state from Democratic hands two months ago in one of the GOP's recent major election victories.

Obama wanted to avoid the usual with his speech: a feel-good assessment of the nation's health and a presidential laundry list of new proposals and priorities. Instead, he aimed for a plainspoken narrative, hoping to tell his presidency's story -- looking forward and back -- in a way that rekindles the energy he harnessed for his historic election. The president clearly understood the magnitude of the moment -- and had a lot to say, as aides worked to whittle down the speech and still expected it to run as much as 75 minutes, an extraordinary length that could tax viewers' patience and would rival any State of the Union since the Clinton era.

Having already admitted he has failed since taking office to explain his agenda and connect with voters, Obama planned to further acknowledge missteps in communication and process. At the same time, he planned an unapologetic defense of pursuing the same agenda on which he won.

That includes an overhaul of the nation's health care system, an aggressive approach to global warming, sweeping changes to address the millions of illegal immigrants and radical reforms of how Wall Street is regulated and children are educated.

Health care was particularly imperiled by the Massachusetts election that erased Democrats' Senate supermajority, needed to pass most legislation.

Obama planned to make his commitment to his signature domestic priority clear, and to urge lawmakers to enact a far-reaching bill rather than a smaller-bore solution -- though it's not clear there is a viable path for this in Congress. However, sticking to his well-established pattern, Obama will not offer lawmakers a specific prescription for salvaging a bill, said White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

The guest list for first lady Michelle Obama's box in the gallery provides another message vehicle, featuring stories from entrepreneurial immigrants to families trying to make ends meet.

In a remarkable shift from past addresses, and notable for a president whose candidacy first caught fire over Iraq war opposition, foreign policy is taking a relative back seat.

The section will come behind the economy and be largely devoid of new policy, with Obama providing an update on the Afghanistan escalation he just ordered, looking ahead to the end of U.S. combat in Iraq and his hosting of an international nuclear weapons summit, and promising an aggressive fight against terrorists.

In a signal the Obama team considers itself at a turning point, it is reverting to techniques that successfully galvanized the grass roots during his campaign.

Obama's political arm-in-waiting, Obama for America, which has assumed a low profile since his election, texted watch-party information to supporters. The White House also solicited follow-up questions on -- saying Obama will answer them online next week.

The president was keeping to the tradition of taking his themes on the road. He will travel to Florida on Thursday to announce $8 billion for high-speed rail development, to Maryland on Friday to speak to a House Republican retreat, and to New Hampshire Tuesday for a jobs-focused event. Cabinet officials were fanning out too.

On Monday, Obama's priorities get another burst of attention, as he submits them in detail to Congress in his 2011 budget request.

Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Julie Pace, Phil Elliott and Darlene Superville contributed to this story.