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Groups Lobbying for a Shoutout in the SOTU

The White House has been reaching out to unions, interest groups and other downtown stakeholders for the past few weeks, soliciting data points and political feedback as it puts the finishing touches on Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

At the same time, industry groups pushing their agendas have filled up the president’s inbox with plenty of unsolicited proposals. After all, what lobbyist wouldn’t want to take a red pen to the State of the Union?

Getting a mention of a signature cause can catapult the issue to the top of the agenda. The State of the Union will help set the debate in Congress this year and has far-reaching political ramifications for the upcoming elections.

“We’ve had a number of meetings with various White House officials over the course of the last couple weeks,” said Chuck Loveless, director of legislation for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “They wanted to hear what we have to say.”

Some K Streeters said they were reluctant to discuss publicly what issues they were pressing the White House on for fear of setting them up for failure if President Barack Obama does not mention it Tuesday. Others, however, were eager to share the agenda items they want the president to press for.

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said she’s hopeful that, because the White House reached out to women’s organizations in advance of the speech, Obama will touch on some of the issues NOW cares about, such as unemployment and poverty, reproductive health and a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

“We are under no illusions,” she said. “I don’t expect him to be perfect on our issues.”

NOW plans to compare an open letter it sent to the president with the text of the address as part of a “massive voter education and voter awareness and mobilization effort for 2012,” she said. “If we support someone who’s not perfect, we can take a step toward achieving our goals.”

Loveless said his union would like to see Obama build on the “income inequality” theme of a major speech he gave in December in Osawatomie, Kan.

“He framed an economic populist message,” Loveless said. “We would like to see the president renew and build upon key provisions of the American Jobs Act.”

Loveless added that he expects the president to reiterate his support for extending unemployment insurance benefits and a middle-class tax cut. “We expect him to clearly articulate that he’s on the side of a strong, secure middle class, while there are others who have staked a position to support the top 1 percent of Americans,” he said.

But getting something included in the speech is no small order, especially for outside advocates. Even some of the most senior White House policy advisers may lobby hard for their issues to be included in the address, but they won’t have final say over what gets mentioned in the big speech. So even if lobbyists can convince those folks of the merits of their issue, it may not survive internal White House politicking.

“Our enemies as well as our allies listen to this speech,” one lobbyist said. “It’s about jobs and the economy, but we also have problems in Iran and North Korea. And there are other things that have to make it in that speech.”

Those decisions are made at the highest levels.

No matter how an item makes it into the speech — whether it comes from an outside influence or from an administration staffer or the president himself — once the commander in chief utters it, lobbyists say, it’s “go time.”

“There’s very little influence that
K Street’s going to have in terms of what goes into the speech,” said John Michael Gonzalez, a Democratic strategist and lobbyist at Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart. “But they will take full advantage of it once it’s done. If your issue gets mentioned in the speech, you’ve got to be ready to go.”

Lobbyists and nonprofit activists say they will live-tweet their reactions — positive and negative — during the address. They plan to post blog entries, fire off press releases and ramp up their outreach to Capitol Hill in the hours and days after the speech.

“It is a big stage, but in terms of nuanced messages, it’s not always the most appropriate vehicle,” said Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen. That means there’s a lot of room for explaining and mobilizing interest.

“Public Citizen is ready to praise the administration if they do the right thing and ready to yell if they say the wrong thing in the State of the Union,” she added.

If the president does touch on a particular cause, the lobbyists behind it say they don’t owe anything to the White House. However, they are likely to work and strategize together.

David French, the National Retail Federation’s senior vice president for government relations, said that last year his group hyped Obama’s stance on swipe-fee legislation.

This year, the retail lobby sent a letter to Obama touting the sector’s benefits to the nation’s economy, setting out its agenda and urging the president to use his State of the Union to call for those policies. The retail group hasn’t yet heard back from the White House, French said.

But, he said, he expects the president will touch on one of those priorities — corporate tax reform — in the speech. “Our goal is to talk about it, not just once or twice, but throughout the year and build momentum for consensus for 2013,” he said.

The post-speech, rapid-response rollout could look like this: “First we might tweet, then we might blog, then we might do a press release,” French explained. “That’s a big deal when the White House, out of hundreds of policy priorities, picks one of your priorities.”

It sure is. Just ask Steve Flick of the Show Me Energy Cooperative in Missouri.

Though presidents typically use their State of the Union address for big-picture policy at home and abroad, sometimes they get into the nitty-gritty. In the 2006 State of the Union, President George W. Bush put switch grass in the public lexicon when he gave it a shoutout as an alternative energy source.

“I had no clue it was coming,” said Flick, who is in the switch grass business. “It validated what we believed.”

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