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Obama's goal: Get agenda moving, people believing

Delivers his first State of the Union address tonight 6 p.m. PT

Posted: January 27, 2010 12:19 p.m.
Updated: January 27, 2010 12:20 p.m.

President Barack Obama walks along the West Wing Colonnade toward the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010, ahead of his first State of the Union address.

 
WASHINGTON (AP) - 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, the president 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 a barely averted terrorist disaster - to how Obama is seizing the reins.

The president will spend about two-thirds of the 9 p.m. EST speech on 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 once 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, debt-financed stimulus bill 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 increase in the popular arena of education) 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 alike to redouble efforts at cooperation.

Throughout, Obama aims to show he understands Americans' struggles to pay the 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.

The guest list for first lady Michelle Obama's box in the gallery provides another vehicle for his message. It will feature stories of success and hardship, from entrepreneurial immigrants to families trying to make ends meet.

With State of the Union messages constitutionally required and traditionally delivered at the end of January, Obama was given 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 the state of his agenda.

Obama 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.

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

Obama directed his speechwriters to resist pressure to produce what these addresses usually are: a feel-good assessment of the nation's health and a presidential laundry list of new proposals and priorities for the year. Instead, Obama ordered up a more plainspoken narrative, hoping to tell the story of his presidency - looking forward and back - in a way that rekindles the energy he harnessed for his historic election.

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

That includes a far-reaching overhaul of the nation's health care system, an aggressive approach to tackling global warming, sweeping changes to address the millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally and radical reforms of how Wall Street is regulated and children are educated.

Health care, in particular, was imperiled by the Massachusetts election that erased the Senate supermajority Democrats need to pass most legislation. Obama planned fresh details about how to salvage his signature domestic priority.

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

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

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

Obama's campaign arm-in-waiting, Obama for America, which has assumed a low profile since the president took office, blasted out a text message urging supporters to join watch parties. The White House also asked people to submit questions on YouTube.com/CitizenTube - saying Obama will answer them during an online event next week.

The president was keeping the State of the Union tradition of hitting the road to continue pressing his case. 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 next Tuesday for a jobs-focused event. Cabinet officials were fanning out too.

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

___

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

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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