President Barack Obama tonight will use his State of the Union address to partially recast his image and his presidency, forgoing bold proposals for smaller concerns and presenting himself as a fighter ready to do battle.
With the stunning Democratic defeat in the Massachusetts Senate race just over a week old, Obama will focus directly on the concerns of average voters and portray himself as just the man to stand up to Washington’s special interests, according to White House officials familiar with Obama’s plans for the speech.
While he still may mention grand plans to reform health care and offer lofty visions of hope, Obama’s emphasis will be on bread-and-butter issues of concern to the middle class, the sources said.
His call for a three-year spending freeze is designed to address the concerns of average voters that his first year — and President George W. Bush’s last — has coincided with an explosion of the deficit. He will have specific proposals to help seniors, students and average income earners and vow to “fight— to get them passed.
Obama as populist pugilist is a contrast to the image he has usually conveyed, one that has relied more on inspiration and an eagerness to get along with others — in particular, Republicans.
But while White House aides continue to pay lip service to the notion of bipartisanship, they privately believe Republicans have shown little willingness to take what they see as Obama’s outstretched hand, and they understand the GOP has little incentive to compromise during an election year.
The new feistiness was teed up by the White House during a trip to Ohio last Friday, when the president repeatedly used the word “fight— while describing his intentions for the coming year.
Democrats, particularly imperiled moderate Blue Dogs, are likely to be cheered by the new Obama. His emphasis on fiscal discipline, for example, is tailored to soothe independent voters who will make the difference in Blue Dog districts.
“The deficit is a big concern for independents and one of the underlying reasons why they have been falling away from the president,— said one senior Democratic aide. “It’s a key issue for Democrats in moderate districts.—
This source added that Obama’s combative tone will accentuate the message. “The feistiness is tapping into the urgency of what people are feeling today,— the aide said.
But presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution questioned whether a fighting Obama will come off as authentic.
“The question is, is he really comfortable firing up the rhetoric?— Hess asked. “Is he really being true to himself?—
White House aides reject the notion of a reinvented Obama. “I think if you go look at what the president talked about in Ohio on Friday and you look at a lot of what the president talked about throughout the first year and throughout the campaign, you’ll find a remarkable amount of similarity,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. “Quite frankly, I mean, in all honesty, go back to 2004 at the convention and you’ll see a lot of that there as well.—
Indeed, Obama will pound home his desire to continue to “change— the ways of Washington. And the health care initiative, he has signaled in recent days, has not been abandoned.
There will also be several broad themes presented, such as the need to stir job creations and protect the nation.
But the White House has also suggested that the president will deliver something akin to a “laundry list— of initiatives designed to appeal to average voters — a roster of initiatives of the type that was a specialty of former President Bill Clinton. This listing of initiatives, Hess noted, is more typical of State of the Union speeches. But it is also the very reason it is not the right arena for an effort by Obama to recast himself or his policies. Such an effort could be more successful in an appearance that had less of a staccato rhythm to it and more of an opportunity to provide a consistent narrative.
One veteran Democratic strategist noted, though, that the State of the Union is a golden chance to grab the nation’s attention. “For those of us who have worked in the White House, it’s one of the most effective tools available to the presidency,— he said.