State of the Union Preview: A Call for Bold Action

President Obama will take the podium tonight to deliver his State of the Union address, a speech in which he intends to make the case to the American public that the nation needs to take bolder action to pull itself out of its long economic malaise.

During his annual address to the joint session of Congress, scheduled for 9 p.m. EST, Obama will argue that investment in science, innovation and education offer the best long-term solution to keeping the United States competitive in a crowded global economy. In his briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs revealed only scant details about Obama's speech, but he made it clear that the president will "spend most of his time talking about the economy, talking about the challenges that we face both in the short term in terms of doing whatever we can to help create jobs, in the medium and long term to continue working on issues like competiveness and innovation."
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In a sense, a lot of what the American people are likely to hear from Obama tonight will be a familiar refrain.

Last month, in a speech in North Carolina, Obama made the case that the Great Recession is America's latest "Sputnik moment"--a reference to the wakeup call that spurred U.S. investment in math and science education after the Soviet Union launched a satellite into space ahead of the United States. In April, he made the case in a major address on the economy that the country needs "a new foundation for growth and prosperity."

But Obama could face the same problem now as he has in the past: Convincing Americans that government spending is the cure for an ailing economy.


In a November poll of 1,000 Obama voters from 2008 who either stayed home or voted for Republican candidates in 2010, only half said that Obama had a plan for the economy and nearly 60 percent said that the White House was relying too much on government intervention to solve problems. The poll was conducted on behalf of the center-left think tank Third Way. Perhaps even more telling was that nearly two-thirds of Obama voters who switched to the GOP said that government spending was a major reason for their midterm vote for Republicans.

Obama is betting that with his State of the Union address--typically the single best platform that a president has for reaching the American people--he can make his case clearly without a media filter. In an unprecedented preview of his address over the weekend, Obama acknowledged the need to get the federal government's fiscal house in order, but he also called for big thinking.

"We're going to have to out-innovate, we're going to have to out-build, we're going to have to out-compete, we're going to have to out-educate other countries," Obama said in a video message to supporters released on Saturday.

His argument comes at a time when he's shifting to the political center and trying to make a case to corporate America to invest some of the $2 trillion in cash on their books--money that Obama believes can provide the kind of lift needed to reduce an unemployment rate that sits at 9.4 percent despite signs that a recovery has begun.

But new government spending is a particularly tough pitch to make with a GOP leadership asserting that it will not agree to any spending increase. Republicans have cast the president's backing of the $787 billion stimulus and bailout of the U.S. auto industry as profligate spending that they vow won't happen again now that the GOP controls the House.

But Gibbs said on Monday that Obama will find ways of offsetting any calls for new spending with cuts.

Obama will hit the road on Wednesday to make his case for his economic plan, travelling to Manitowoc, Wis., where he will visit a green technology company and talk to company employees about the state of the economy. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Greenfield, Ind., to visit Ener1 Inc., a manufacturer of advanced lithium-ion battery systems. The company received a $118.5 million grant from the stimulus to expand production of advanced batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles. Biden will also give a speech addressing how the administration plans to incentivize investment and innovation.

Although much of the speech will center on the economy, Obama will also reflect on the war in Afghanistan as well as plans to withdraw the remaining 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of the year.

As is customary, the president has invited several Americans he met during his travels throughout the country over the past year--among them several people who were touched by the Tucson shootings this month that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.--to attend the speech.

Gibbs confirmed that Daniel Hernandez Jr., an intern for Giffords, will sit with first lady Michelle Obama at tonight's speech. Hernandez rushed to Giffords's aid after she was shot in the head during a public event. The family of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was fatally shot, and Dr. Peter Rhee, the chief of trauma at University Medical Center in Tucson, will also join Michelle Obama for the speech, Gibbs said.

Presented by

Aamer Madhani is a correspondent (White House) for National Journal.

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