Reporting from Washington — President Obama plans to use his State of the Union speech Tuesday to articulate a centrist vision that will shape the remaining two years of his term and provide a template for his reelection campaign.
Obama has been moving steadily to the political center since his midterm election drubbing two months ago, agreeing to extend tax cuts for the richest Americans, calling for business-friendly regulations and attempting to repair his relationship with the business community. His speech Tuesday is an opportunity to showcase that transformation, especially to independent voters.
"This is a fundamental, if not the fundamental, moment of the Obama presidency," said Douglas Schoen, who was an advisor to former President Clinton. "He has been moving to the center by fits and starts. But he has yet to declare where he stands and what he wants to accomplish. This is his chance to eschew the partisanship of the first two years, to put himself in the center and be responsive to the mandate that elected him."
In the speech, set for 6 p.m. PST, Obama will lay out the steps he'll take to boost an economy bedeviled by high unemployment, while summarizing the progress made to date, according to White House aides. He will also address the whopping federal debt, a topic that contributed to voter angst in November, when Republicans won control of the House.
He will try to plant the idea that things are getting better, but avoid suggesting that troubles are over. With unemployment at 9.4%, no one is apt to believe the economy has recovered.
"You've got to be careful not to take too much credit when people are still feeling pretty bad," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "But you also have to put yourself in position to take credit down the road as things do improve."
In a short video preview of his speech on his grass-roots website Organizing for America, Obama said: "My principal focus, my No. 1 focus, is going to be making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing and we are creating jobs, not just now but well into the future. I'm focused on making sure the economy is working for everybody."
Building on a theme from his speech in Tucson after the shooting rampage that killed six and injured 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Obama is likely to call for more civility in politics. The conciliatory message is a sharp break from some of Obama's more combative oratory of the last two years, when he said Republicans deserved to take a "back seat" to Democrats.
"This is his opportunity to close the book on the 2010 election and open up the Obama 2012 campaign," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. "This is his initial opportunity to make the case to voters that he understands the message that they sent last November — that he's listening and he gets it."
Predecessors have faced a similar predicament. Clinton, the last Democratic president, also delivered a high-stakes speech coming off a midterm election debacle.
In 1995, after his party lost control of Congress, Clinton opened his State of the Union address with a pledge to get back in step with voters. In the following year's address, Clinton proclaimed "the era of big government is over." He won reelection that year.
"This is the speech that, if done right, will put [Obama] in the center and allow him to reclaim the mandate he got in 2008," Schoen said. "So this will effectively define his presidency. If he does it, it will inestimably increase his chances of reelection. And if he doesn't, it will be an opportunity lost."
Underscoring the importance of the speech, the White House is using various media tools to pique public interest, beginning with a special website: http://www.whitehouse.gov/state-of-the-union-2011. White House policy experts will take online questions from the public after Obama finishes.
On Thursday, the president will field questions in a live interview on YouTube.
White House senior advisor David Plouffe sent an e-mail to supporters Friday asking them to take part. The e-mail was reminiscent of the many messages Plouffe sent out when, as Obama's 2008 campaign manager, he shared insights into Obama's campaign prospects.
The lead writer for the president's second State of the Union address is Jon Favreau, the chief White House speechwriter and architect of some of Obama's most memorable speeches from the '08 campaign. However, advice is coming in from all directions.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), in a suggestion to Obama's budget director, Jacob Lew, recommended that Obama include a reference to the bipartisan deficit reduction commission, whose final report was approved in December.
Durbin, who served on the panel, said Obama could point to the commission's work as "a template to follow" at a time when Republicans control the House and Democrats dominate the Senate.