Interest groups vie for a moment of Obama's time in State of the Union address

President Obama gave a preview of his State of the Union speech, which he will deliver on Tuesday.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 12:22 AM

It has been a frenetic few weeks for the country's leading oil industry group: Lobbyists for the American Petroleum Institute have repeatedly phoned the White House, cajoled agency higher-ups, even bought big newspaper ads touting the virtues of oil and natural gas.

The goal of all this activity isn't to win support for a crucial piece of legislation in Congress, but something much narrower - convincing President Obama to say something, anything, complimentary about Big Oil in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Each January, industries and interest groups of all kinds badger the White House with requests for a mention in the speech, which sets the political agenda in Washington for the year. Even a brief call-out from the president can be an important advantage in the contest for increasingly scarce federal dollars.

With so much competition, sometimes the effort to get a line in the speech falls short, said Jack Gerard, API's president and CEO. But "sometimes you are pleasantly surprised. So we continue to push, push, push, push."

This year, with the president far more constricted in what he can realistically promise, pleasant surprises may be especially hard to come by.

Obama will deliver his speech before a Congress with fewer Democratic faces, and one in which both parties fear the repercussions of the nation's sluggish economy, high unemployment rate and rising debt. The address won't feature the long list of costly giveaways familiar in good times. Instead, the speech - like last year's - will center largely on Obama's economic plans.

"My principal focus . . . is going to be making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing, and we are creating jobs," Obama said in a preview video of the speech sent to supporters Saturday. He declared the deficit another priority, calling on Washington to "reform government so that it's leaner and smarter for the 21st century."

He did not explain in the video how he would meet those goals. People briefed on the speech said Obama will look to invest in transportation and the nation's aging infrastructure as one way to create jobs and spur the economy.

Obama's announcement Friday that General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt will head a new panel of outside economic advisers gives Obama the chance to talk Tuesday about his efforts to work with corporate leaders as he looks for ways to curtail unemployment.

The president will also defend his health care overhaul, now under attack by Republicans in Congress, and will restate his commitment to regulating Wall Street.

And though the speech is unlikely to be heavy on foreign policy - in the past Obama has saved that for his annual address to the United Nations - he will take time to outline his most important goals abroad.

In recent months, Obama has often spoken of his foreign policy in terms of how it affects the U.S economy. After successfully negotiating a free-trade agreement with South Korea last year, he is likely to call on Congress to ratify it quickly. Labor unions have generally opposed the treaty, fearing it will result in U.S. jobs being moved overseas. But Obama has argued that tapping into rising middle-class markets abroad is essential to increasing U.S. trade and creating jobs at home.

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