WASHINGTON – Vilified by the Republicans who want his job, President Barack Obama will stand before the nation Tuesday night determined to frame the election-year debate on his terms, promising his State of the Union address will outline a lasting economic recovery that will “work for everyone, not just a wealthy few.”
As his most powerful chance to make a case for a second term, the prime-time speech carries enormous political stakes for the Democratic incumbent who presides over a country divided about his performance and pessimistic about the nation’s direction. He will try to offer a stark contrast with his opponents by offering a vision of fairness and opportunity for everyone.
In a preview Saturday, Obama said in a video to supporters that the speech will be an economic blueprint built around manufacturing, energy, education and American values.
He is expected to announce ideas to make college more affordable and to address the housing crisis still hampering the economy, people familiar with the speech said. Obama will also propose fresh ideas to ensure that the wealthy pay more in taxes, reiterating what he considers a matter of basic fairness.
His policy proposals will be less important than what Obama hopes they all add up to: a narrative of renewed American security with him leading the fight.
“We can go in two directions,” Obama said in the campaign video. “One is toward less opportunity and less fairness. Or we can fight for where I think we need to go: building an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few.”
That line of argument is intended to tap directly into concerns of voters who think America has become a nation of income inequality, with rules rigged to help the rich. The degree to which Obama or his Republican opponent can better connect with millions of hurting Americans is expected to determine November’s presidential election.
Obama didn’t mention national security or foreign policy in his preview, and he is not expected to break ground on either one.
He will focus on the economy and is expected to promote unfinished parts of his jobs plan, including the extension of a payroll tax cut that is to expire soon.
Whatever Obama proposes is likely to face long odds in a deeply divided Congress.
More people than not disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy, and he is showing real vulnerability among the independent voters who could swing the election. Yet he will step into the moment just as the economy is showing life. The unemployment rate is still at a troubling 8.5 percent, but it is at its lowest rate in nearly three years. Consumer confidence is up.
The foundation of Obama’s speech is the one he gave in Kansas last month, when he declared that the middle class was at a make-or-break moment and he railed against “you’re on your own” economics of the Republican Party. His theme then was a government that ensures people get a fair shot to succeed.
But even so, the State of the Union speech will still be a framework – part governing, part inspiration.
The details will be rolled out in full over the next several weeks, as part of Obama’s next budget proposal and during his travels, which will allow him more media coverage.
On national security, Obama will ask the nation to reflect on a momentous year of change, including the end of the war in Iraq, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring protests.
Despite low expectations for legislation this year, Obama will offer short-term ideas that would require action from Congress.
His travel schedule following his speech, to politically important regions, offers clues to the policies he is expected to unveil.
Both Phoenix and Las Vegas have been hard hit by foreclosures. Denver is where Obama outlined ways of helping college students deal with school loan debt. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Detroit are home to a number of manufacturers. And Michigan was a major beneficiary of the president’s decision to intervene to rescue the American auto industry.
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