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A Skeptical GOP Is Obama’s Top Target

Tuesday night is all about the audience.

When President Barack Obama delivers his second State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, he will have a special charge: winning over Republicans still skeptical about whether he is willing to compromise and be an ally in the fight to create jobs, reduce the deficit and get the budget back in the black.

This year’s speech couldn’t be more different from last year’s.

Rather than focus on specific Democratic policy proposals, Obama will speak in broad themes that already have strong bipartisan support: job creation, international competitiveness and fiscal discipline. And he will be looking to appeal to a new GOP House majority — and independent voters — with talk of consensus building and gentler rhetoric; he will build on the message he delivered in his speech earlier this month at the Tucson, Ariz., memorial.

“I don’t think you’ll see a laundry list of issues” in the address, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday. “I don’t think this has tended to be a speech that is … one where you spend big chunks of time walking through the specific machinations of the policies.”

House and Senate Republican leaders say Obama has an opportunity to prove himself as a bipartisan arbiter in the 112th Congress, but they say he will need to do more than give a single speech to prove it. Obama has had little success so far extending olive branches to Republicans: His appearance at the GOP retreat last January resulted in a heated question-and-answer session, and his bipartisan health care summit at the White House last February amounted to little more than political theater.

“I’m looking to see what decision this president makes through his remarks tomorrow as to the direction that he will take in the context of where we’ve been over the last two years,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday during a sit-down with reporters.

“The question is, is he going to decouple himself from what we’ve seen over the last two years and what he has been selling? Is he going to continue to sell that which he did or will there be a new direction?” the Virginia Republican asked. “The success of this Congress will rest on that question, as will frankly the outcome of the election in November 2012.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who cut a deal late last year with Obama on extending the Bush-era tax cuts, said the president has already signaled he is trying to move in a different direction. The Kentucky Republican suggested Obama is showing signs of being more business-friendly in his next two years: Both Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden recently hired Wall Street executives as their new chiefs of staff.

“He’s quit bashing business and is now celebrating business,” McConnell said during a “Fox News Sunday” interview. “It is a kind of a trust-but-verify moment. Let’s see if he’s really willing to do it, and if he is, I think he’ll find a lot of help among Republicans.”

But McConnell warned that the president will lose GOP support if he talks during his address about increasing spending for key Democratic priorities, including education and infrastructure. Obama is expected to call for some targeted spending increases Tuesday night.

“With all due respect to our Democratic friends, any time they want to spend, they call it investment,” he said. “We’ll take a look at his recommendations. We always do. But this is not a time to be looking at pumping up government spending in very many areas.”

House Democratic leaders say they will be looking to Obama to set a road map for tackling the contentious issues before them, namely health care and immigration reform.

“We’re going to revisit this health care bill many, many times before it gets to where it ought to be,” Assistant Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said late last week. “The president can lay out a litany of things that we can do to this bill right away, in a bipartisan way. That’s what we’ve done with civil rights and voting rights.”

Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said he hoped Obama would address “how we are finally going to crack this nut called a broken immigration system and get to immigration reform.”

The president disappointed immigration reform advocates during last year’s State of the Union address when he barely touched on the issue. And the Hispanic community is still upset that Obama failed to deliver on his campaign promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in office.

Immigration reform isn’t the only issue atop Members’ radar, however.

Sen. John Barrasso questioned how Republicans should interpret Obama’s commitment to job creation when he made the same pledge in the last Congress but then pivoted to health care reform.

“He talked about focusing on the economy like a laser beam, and yet we never saw that happen,” the Wyoming Republican said Monday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

And liberals have warned the president against advocating changes to Social Security. On Monday, MoveOn.Org sent an e-mail to supporters urging them to lobby the White House in response to rumors that Obama will signal a willingness to cut benefits during Tuesday’s address.

“It is a serious political mistake if the administration permits even the slightest opening toward partial privatization of Social Security accounts or reducing benefits,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said. “I mean, get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, start to trim the Pentagon budget. But don’t tell people they have to take a cut in benefits.”

Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.

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