A crew prepares the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond for Gov. Bob… (Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch )
Reporting from Washington — With his State of the Union address tonight, President Obama aims to deliver a game-changing message, one capable of convincing Americans that his policies will create jobs, curb spending and restore prosperity.
But with voter discontent over his healthcare overhaul running high and the recession's effects cutting deep, the president's trademark eloquence may not be the antidote to his troubles.
Economists see little hope for substantial employment gains or the return of a robust economy between now and November's midterm congressional election, despite Obama's $787-billion stimulus package. And the mystique of his insurgent campaign, with its promise of change, has long since worn off. After months of wrangling over healthcare and other issues, polls suggest that voters now see Obama as an orthodox politician -- and the toxic partisanship of Washington as essentially unchanged.
"He's looked like he's siding with Wall Street up until now, at the same time as he's pushing [big] government," said Stanley Greenberg, a pollster for President Clinton. "He has the worst of all possible worlds."
Aides said that Obama would call tonight for changing the bitter political climate in Washington. But the possibility of compromises on major issues appeared to be dwindling.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), for instance, on Tuesday heaped scorn on the federal spending freeze Obama plans to propose. "Given President Obama's leading role in Washington's unprecedented spending binge, the American people are right to be skeptical. . . . Middle-class families and small-business owners have been struggling to do more with less, while Democrats in Washington pile up red ink as far as the eye can see," Boehner said, reiterating a line of attack that Republicans hammered throughout 2009.
And the Senate on Tuesday voted down an Obama-backed proposal to establish a commission to reduce the federal budget deficit. The vote followed the release of a Congressional Budget Office report predicting that the 2010 budget deficit would be $1.35 trillion.
Still, tonight's appearance before a joint session of Congress may be suited for this president, who has come up with big speeches before.
Obama pulled his campaign through a dangerous moment in 2008 when he delivered a poignant soliloquy on his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and the state of American race relations. And last year, while aides braced for criticism over his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize -- an honor many felt the new wartime president had done little to deserve -- Obama delivered an acceptance speech that drew praise as a thoughtful discourse on the challenges of contemporary peacemaking.
Seeking to dress the stage for Obama's first prime-time State of the Union speech, Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday told members of the Democratic National Committee that "the reports of our demise are premature."
"It's time everybody took a deep breath," Biden said. "We understand that people are frustrated. If the Lord Almighty were president, why wouldn't they be frustrated? There's over 10 million people unemployed."
Obama aides said the economy would not be his only topic.
He plans to call for a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system, they said, and will talk about the need to regulate carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming. The president also will discuss government reform, a senior administration official said, and express concern about the recent Supreme Court decision that opens the way for unlimited political spending by corporations.
And although it was not clear what Obama would have to say about the battle over healthcare, he does plan to lay out steps meant to change the way Washington does business.
That may prove a tough sell.
Obama's campaign pledge to surmount partisan differences has foundered, with Republicans blocking his agenda. "I don't think he anticipated how the dynamics on the Republican side would refuse him any support from Day One," Greenberg said.
And Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, said that people believe the Obama administration "hasn't been unique enough or different enough in separating itself from the traditional Washington culture. The public wants that, and they haven't seen it as clearly and definitively as they expected."
Obama and congressional Democrats may try to press Republicans into cooperating on a jobs proposal. But the GOP has seen little benefit in improving relations at a time when the president's approval ratings have dropped steadily.
On the eve of his speech, Obama sounded a philosophical note. In an interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer, he said that he would keep pushing for healthcare and other major items on his agenda, whatever the political cost.
"I'd rather be a really good one-term president," he said, "than a mediocre two-term president."