WHITE HOUSE— President Obama has begun his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
The President will attempt to prod lawmakers to join him in further steps to strengthen the economy, create jobs, and support the middle class.
In what is technically his fourth State of the Union speech, the president will also discuss Afghanistan and, possibly, North Korea's nuclear test. He will deliver his remarks aware that most Americans view the economy and unemployment as the country's biggest problems. Obama also knows that despite political capital from his re-election victory, public dissatisfaction remains high with the failure of leaders in Washington to deal with these problems.
In a speech White House aides say began to be drafted last November, he is likely to return to themes he sounded as he campaigned for re-election. He will urge Republicans and Democrats to work with him to keep the economy moving forward by strengthening and expanding the middle class, rebuilding American infrastructure, and boosting manufacturing.
During an address to Democratic lawmakers last week, the president hinted at his Tuesday speech.
"I am going to be talking about making sure that we are focused on job creation here in the United States of America," he said. "It means that we are focused on education and that every young person is equipped with the skills they need to compete in the twenty-first century."
On the eve of Tuesday's address, White House press secretary Jay Carney described the State of the Union as the second act of a play that includes Obama's inaugural address last month. The president, he said, will directly speak to Americans' concerns about lingering effects of recession.
"He would address those Americans directly and talk about the need for Washington to take positive action to help the economy grow, to help it create jobs, the need for Washington to refrain from taking negative action by allowing for example, the sequester to kick in which would do direct harm to Americans, direct harm to the middle class, direct harm to our defense industries and national security interests."
Carney said the president will say "work is not done" to boost the economy, that positive trends are not irreversible, and that a stronger foundation is needed for growth.
Listening will be Republicans who control the House of Representatives, and who since mid-term elections in 2010 have posed opposition to the president's domestic agenda. But Obama has some time to achieve key objectives, said John Sides of George Washington University, such as immigration reform and stronger gun control laws, before the next mid-term election in 2014.
"He has a couple of years, certainly up until the next mid-term election, to get things done," Sides said. "Whether he can get things done after that midterm depends a lot upon how Congress looks in the wake of the midterm, have the Democrats lost seats or gained seats. If they gain some seats you might actually be able to see him accomplish a little bit more."
Obama will again warn about potentially damaging effects for the economy if Congress allows about $110 billion in automatic spending cuts to occur at the beginning of March.
On foreign policy, senior administration officials say Obama will announce that 34,000 American troops will leave Afghanistan by this time next year, part of the process leading to a complete withdrawal of foreign combat forces by 2014.
He may also talk about the ongoing impacts of the Arab Spring, though he is unlikely to announce any change in his approach on Syria, where nearly 70,000 people are estimated to have died during nearly two years of fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Other possible foreign policy topics include North Korea and its latest nuclear test, the status of the so-called U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, and Obama's ongoing efforts to reduce nuclear arms.