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Obama at Political Turning Point as Major Speech Draws Near

U.S. President Barack Obama appears to be at a political turning point as he prepares to deliver the annual State of the Union Address on Wednesday before a Joint Session of Congress and a national television audience. The recent Republican victory in the special Senate election in the heavily Democratic northeastern U.S. state of Massachusetts underscores a shifting political landscape for the president, far different from the high poll numbers and expectations when he came into office one year ago.

One year after taking office, public opinion polls tell the story of voters having some serious doubts about the 44th president.

Barack Obama's signature health-care-reform plan is stalled in Congress amid declining public support. The president remains personally popular with voters, but increasingly Americans disapprove of his policies, finding them either too costly or ineffective.

Republicans have found new momentum after last week's stunning upset in the Massachusetts Senate election and are eagerly looking forward to picking up congressional seats in November's midterm elections.

With all of this as backdrop, President Obama returned to campaign mode during a recent visit to Ohio, hoping to strike a more combative tone on behalf of middle class voters.

"I want you to understand, this not about me. This is not about me," he said. "This is about you!"

Mr. Obama's best opportunity to hit the political reset button will come Wednesday when he delivers the annual State of the Union address before Congress and a national television audience. It is expected the president will focus on finding ways to help middle-class families in their daily economic struggles.

Many of Mr. Obama's Democratic supporters say the president needs to find a way to pass some sort of health-care plan quickly and then focus on the economy and jobs, which the polls say are the voters' top concerns.

Republicans say the Massachusetts result should also be taken as a sign that voters want the president to reach out to the opposition to find common ground on health care, the economy and other issues.

"The president made a decision to go hard-left," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell who spoke on NBC's 'Meet the Press' program. "That is why he does not have many of my members. If he chooses to govern in the middle, I think he will have much broader cooperation from Republicans."

To some extent that was the course then-president Bill Clinton chose after the 1994 congressional elections when Republicans won control of both the Senate and House of Representatives.

"I think he is going to continue to have to work, where he can, at trying to reach out, trying to bridge divides, reaching out to independents, finding issues that he can work with Republicans on, especially an issue like reducing the deficit," said Matt Dallek, a political historian with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Analysts also see the president's current troubles as a test of whether he can recapture the kind of public support he enjoyed during his presidential run in 2008.

"A lot of people including a lot of Democrats think he has gotten too detached and too aloof," said longtime political commentator Tom DeFrank, a guest on VOA's 'Issues in the News' program. "The people need to feel like he is in touch with their pain, with their angst, with what is happening to them in their lives, and he cannot just be a professor."

Experts say it will be important for the president in the State of the Union address to lay out how he will pursue his political agenda in Congress in light of the Republican victory in Massachusetts. That victory came on the heels of Republican wins in governor's races last November in New Jersey and Virginia, and all three races showed declining support for the president and his priorities among independent voters.

Mr. Obama and his agenda will be central issues in the November congressional elections, says University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato.

"It almost always is about the incumbent president," he said. "We used to have a patchwork of local contests in midterm elections. The last time that happened was really 1990. It has not happened since and I do not think it is going to happen in 2010."

A lot of experts see some similarities between Mr. Obama's political challenges and those of former President Ronald Reagan during his first term in office.

Mr. Reagan dealt with a weak economy, high unemployment and poor poll ratings early in his term, says historian Matt Dallek.

"During the recession of 1982, the Republicans lost well over 20 seats in Congress in the midterm elections. And yet Reagan obviously in 1984 won a landslide re-election victory," he said. "So I think these things can shift very quickly."

Most experts predict Republicans will gain 20 to 30 seats in the House in November, but that estimate could grow until the Democrat's current 40 seat margin is threatened. It is also expected Republicans will make some gains in the Senate, where Democrats will hold a 59 to 41 seat edge once Republican Scott Brown occupies his seat from Massachusetts.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.