Obama will reset his agenda in State of the Union speech

Harry Smith spoke Wednesday with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the new legislation President Obama will announce in the State of the Union speech.
By Shailagh Murray and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

When President Obama appears before Congress and the nation on Wednesday night to deliver his State of the Union speech, his goals will be to reset his agenda, assure his demoralized party that he has not given up on key priorities and try to convince a skeptical public that he can still change Washington.

The White House provided new details late Tuesday about a proposed three-year spending freeze aimed at controlling the deficit while protecting key programs that Democrats in Congress view as sacrosanct, including education. Obama will announce what administration officials described as the largest single-year request for federal funding for elementary and secondary schools, making education one of the few areas to grow in an otherwise austere budget.

The president will call for a 6.2 percent increase in education spending over last year, including up to $4 billion as part of an effort to revamp the George W. Bush-era programs that expanded testing to measure student progress, aides to the president said Tuesday. Senior aides said Obama will link the increase in education funding to his calls for school reform. They said his proposals fit into a broader effort by the White House to focus scarce resources on the nation's long-term economic health.

After the speech, Obama plans to take his newly energized populist message on the road in the coming days, pledging to voters in Florida and New Hampshire -- both 2010 battleground states -- that he will fight for them.

Democrats and Obama have yet to agree on how to tackle the year ahead, and a big part of the president's challenge Wednesday will be to begin to clear away the doubt, despair and division that have settled over his party after losing a Senate seat in Massachusetts last week.

Some Democrats are determined to salvage the major bills that consumed 2009, including health-care reform, an overhaul of financial regulations and clean-energy incentives aimed at reducing climate change. But others are ready to shelve anything big and controversial in exchange for smaller, more popular initiatives.

Although Senate Democratic leaders released a blueprint for a new jobs bill on Tuesday, lawmakers bickered over what to include in the package. The Senate's rejection Tuesday of a bipartisan deficit commission also highlighted deep divisions within the party over how aggressively to tackle a federal budget crisis that will inevitably require tax increases and spending cuts.

Even Obama's idea to impose a three-year freeze on federal spending for most domestic programs -- a relatively modest proposal to save $250 billion over 10 years -- received a lukewarm response from some top Democrats.

"We'll have to look and see what the president's talking about cutting," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) told reporters.

The overriding theme of the State of the Union address, scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern time, is the economy, aides said. White House officials said the president will describe detailed initiatives for middle-class families.

With voters expressing disgust with gridlock and division, Obama will revive his campaign pledge to change the way Washington works. How he will make that topic fresh after a year in office that was marked at times by acrid partisanship remained unclear. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama will argue that Washington "has to be pushed," whether on health-care reform or cutting the federal budget.

Despite the uncertain fate of health-care legislation -- Obama's top domestic priority -- the president is not expected to call for a precise way forward, although he will reiterate his commitment to the cause. "There's clearly a caricature of a health reform bill that is viewed differently by the public than when you break out its component parts," Gibbs said.

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