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Obama Speech to Focus on Economy, Political Cooperation

President Barack Obama works on his State of the Union Speech with Director of Speechwriting Jon Favreau in the Oval Office, Jan. 24, 2011.
President Barack Obama works on his State of the Union Speech with Director of Speechwriting Jon Favreau in the Oval Office, Jan. 24, 2011.

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union Address to the nation on Tuesday. Mr. Obama says his speech will focus on efforts to create jobs and increase U.S. global competitiveness, while taking steps to reduce the government's budget deficit spending and the national debt.  

In contrast with his first State of the Union Address early last year, the president faces a markedly changed political landscape, with Republicans holding a strong majority in the House of Representatives. 

Though largely symbolic, a House vote last week to repeal Mr. Obama's landmark health care law signaled what political analysts see as the start of a two-year effort by Republicans to weaken him and his fellow Democrats on the way to the 2012 general election.

Issues

STATE OF THE UNION TRIVIA

Did you Know?

  • The 221 year-old tradition is a requirement found in Article 2 Section 3 of the US Constitution and asks that the president "give to the Congress information on the State of the Union"
  • One member of the Cabinet is not present so that in case of an emergency, the line of succession is preserved
  • President Franklin Roosevelt coined the phrase "State of the Union"; before that the address was known as the "Annual Message" to Congress

    The first radio broadcast of the speech was under President Calvin Coolidge in 1923

    The first televised address was under President Harry Truman in 1947

    The first Internet broadcast of the speech was under President George W. Bush in 2002

In a message to supporters over the weekend, the president previewed what he said would be a main topic of his State of the Union speech -- the need, despite some improvements in the economy, to put Americans back to work.  

"My principal focus, my number one focus, is going to be making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing and we are creating jobs not just know but well into the future," said President Obama.

The president is expected to return to a theme he sounded frequently last year -  the need to maintain investments in education, scientific and technical innovation, and public infrastructure.   

Decisions

But as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Monday, Mr. Obama will be blunt about hard decisions ahead, requiring cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, to reduce the federal budget deficit and bring down the national debt in the long term.

"We're not going to have a debate in Washington about whether we need to make some changes and whether we need to control our spending," Gibbs said. "We're going to have, hopefully, a bipartisan discussion and work together on how we go about doing that."

White House aides say the president probably will not make any specific commitments on the question of cutting spending on so-called "entitlement" programs, such as the Social Security system.  That was one recommendation by a bipartisan presidential commission.

Compromise

Analysts say that although President Obama is building a new centrist image for himself, managing to forge significant compromises with Republicans last year on taxes and help for the unemployed, the path will not be easy.

Appearing on NBC television's Meet the Press program, House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor suggested that Mr. Obama's talk about investments actually means more spending when the goal should be to cut government outlays.

"We've got to do what families in this country are doing, what businesses are doing," said Cantor. "You have got to learn to do more with less. You can't afford to sustain this level of borrowing and spending."

Opposition

Republicans vow to hold government spending to 2008 levels.  Just before the State of the Union Address,  they are expected to hold a vote on a non-binding resolution to require such reductions for discretionary, non-security programs.

On efforts by Republicans to dismantle the health care law, Democrats in the Senate are determined to use any debate to underscore what that would mean for Americans.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer appeared on CBS television's Face the Nation program.

"We will require them to vote on the individual protections in the bill that are very popular and that even some of the new Republican House members have said they support," Schumer said.

Budget

The main battle involving spending, where President Obama and Republicans are concerned, begins next month when the administration submits what Press Secretary Gibbs calls "a very detailed" budget to Congress.  

Gibbs expanded on the message the president will bring to Congress and the nation on Tuesday.

"I don't think anybody in this town or anybody in this country expect us not to wake up and still have some differences," Gibbs said. "That is why you have a democracy and why you have the system we have.  That is not to say though that as we are having some of those debates and discussions that we can't look at what unites rather than divides us and see if we can't make some progress on that."

Popularity

President Obama goes into the State of the Union address with a significant improvement in his public approval ratings, with several polls showing his support at or several points above 50 percent.

His remarks after the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, in which he urged that national debate not take place on the "usual plane of politics, point-scoring and pettiness" positively impacted perceptions of his leadership.  But polls show ongoing skepticism about his handling of the economy.

Among those expected in the House of Representatives chamber observing the president's speech will be Daniel Hernandez, the man credited with saving the life of wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the family of Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year-old girl who was among six people killed in the Arizona shooting.

In support of the goal of increased cooperation, some Democrats and Republicans will sit together during the speech.   Among them will be South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson, who heckled Mr. Obama by shouting "you lie" during the president's 2009 speech on health care.

International affairs

On foreign policy, President Obama is expected to speak, as Gibbs described, about the war in Afghanistan and where progress is being made.  He is also expected to reiterate U.S. determination to defeat and dismantle al-Qaida and other extremist groups.

The United States and NATO have agreed on a 2014 date for transferring all security responsibilities in Afghanistan to Afghan forces.  Mr. Obama is likely to pay tribute to the sacrifices of American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and reiterate the objective of beginning a U.S. troop drawdown from Afghanistan in July of this year.   

* Watch this White House video to get a glimpse of how the process works -- and how President Obama is approaching tonight's speech.

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