When it ended, many Democrats believed Obama had acquiesced to Republican budget-cutting demands to get to a resolution.
Obama and his advisers, though, are betting that voters, especially young ones, will support a reelection strategy that presents him as a post-partisan president, more interested in problem-solving than ideology.
His advisers say the speech will seek to inject a new sense of urgency into the economic debate and challenge Congress to act or be blamed for not doing so.
But his Republican critics say Obama is raising expectations too high by choosing to address a joint session of Congress.
“The pressure on the president to really come with something in that speech is much greater than it should have been,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Wednesday. “There’s lots of venues,” Blunt added. “The House of Representatives before joint session of Congress establishes a high expectation.”
In response, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters Wednesday that Obama will “do it in front of Congress because he is calling on Congress to act.”
“Do you really think outside in the country that Americans think we’re raising expectations too high because we think the American economy is the most important subject to talk about right now? I don’t think so,” Carney said, “We believe it’s imperative for Congress to act. We believe the American people are demanding that Congress act and pay for its actions.”
It is a blame-Congress strategy that has been successful before.
In July 1948, President Harry Truman addressed a joint session of Congress on the need to act against rising inflation, outlining a series of steps it should take immediately to prevent “another Great Depression.”
The following month, Truman issued a status report detailing congressional action on his economic plan, using the phrase “failed to act” more than a dozen times. An underdog, Truman won the election a few months later.
“He knew they weren’t going to do it, so it strengthened his ability to attack them as the do-nothing Congress,” said Robert Dallek, the author and presidential historian. “I see a certain parallel here.”
Dallek called a presidential speech “a powerful instrument of opinion-making and influence.” But he acknowledged that, for Obama, the address to Congress may be all he has left to shape public opinion about his economic record.
Not all of Obama’s big-speech attempts have been successful.
A month after his inauguration, Obama outlined for a joint session of Congress “an agenda that begins with jobs.” Eight months later, the unemployment rate had climbed to a peak of 10.2 percent, more than two percentage points higher than when he spoke.
Carney said that while Obama understands there are other ideas in circulation about how to improve the economy, he will urge Congress to pass his proposals because “they are sensible, they are bipartisan and they are paid for.”
He suggested that the White House chose the big-speech option because direct negotiations with Congress, House Republicans in particular, have been of limited value.
“I do not believe that anyone out there in the country thinks that the answer to getting Washington out of gridlock is having another round of meetings in the Cabinet Room,” he said.