With Jobs Speech, Obama Will Look to Start Over

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After a summer of stalemate and partisan division, the president will ask Congress to move on and try to lift himself above the fray

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In his Thursday night speech, President Obama seeks a reset, a fresh start after the sorry spectacle of the recent debate over raising the debt ceiling.

For him, his address to a joint session of Congress is about much more than the legislative initiatives he will champion. Most of those have already been outlined in previous speeches. Instead, the White House sees the speech as the best path to move the president, finally, out of the dark shadow cast over everyone in Washington by the messy debt debacle.

The speech is in part a recognition of the damage done by the fight that ended Aug. 2, when the president signed legislation raising the ceiling. The 37 days between then and this address have included one economic body blow after another--a downgrading of the nation's credit rating, plunging consumer confidence, a dismal jobs report, a volatile stock market, and a renewed European crisis. And the voters at home have rendered a solid verdict of disgust with Democrats and Republicans, the White House and Congress.

Democrats familiar with the president's plans who spoke on condition of anonymity said Obama will call for Washington to move on, past what they call a tough summer, past the self-inflicted wounds of the debt debate and past political unforced errors. To do that, he hopes to separate himself from Congress--particularly from a Republican-controlled House that already has declared hostility to most of the initiatives in the Obama agenda. He wants to show that he learned a lesson from the debt debate, that he agrees with the public that Washington should focus more on the issues that matter to the country and stop the partisan theatrics.

The goal is to show a country stuck in economic doldrums that the president is fighting for them while Congress remains fighting the battles of the summer over debt and deficit. The Democrats who spoke of the president's approach said the hope is that by the end of the year, it will be clear that Obama has clear plans for the economy and deficit reduction. If the House, as expected, rejects his plans, the president will try to cast Republicans as not sharing the urgency felt by so many Americans.

He will suggest that inaction by Congress on his package will mean that Congress thinks the economy does not rescue, that nothing needs to be done on job creation, help for the long-term unemployed, or aid to teachers facing layoffs.

The Democrats who spoke about the plans said the White House is taking a long view on the impact of the speech, cautioning against paying any attention to the first polls to come out on Friday. This, they said, will be a long slog with the president hammering away at his message repeatedly, first in a trip to Richmond, Va., within hours of the speech, and then in repeated speeches and events in the coming weeks and months. The speeches will place equal emphasis on the specifics of his package and on the urgent need for action. After declaring that Washington failed on the debt debate, he will cast action on this package as the next big test for those who hope to govern.

He will acknowledge that people are right to be skeptical of Washington after watching the debt fight. But he will argue against using that as an excuse for avoiding a debate over steps that can be taken to boost the economic recovery, said one Democrat familiar with the speech.

Image credit: Jason Reed/Reuters

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George E. Condon Jr.

George E. Condon Jr is a staff writer (White House) with National Journal.

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