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

By Peter Wallsten and Anne E. Kornblut
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.

In discussing foreign policy more broadly, he is expected to underscore the end-of-year deadline for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq, more than seven years after the invasion. In Afghanistan, where the war is in its tenth year, Obama will draw attention to the July deadline he has set for the start of troop withdrawals, a process scheduled to unfold through 2014 at a pace to be determined by conditions on the ground.

The State of the Union is often criticized for being too long and bloated with prizes for various constituencies. But within Washington, it serves to make the president's priorities known and is viewed as the "operating manual for the year," said John Podesta, who served as chief of staff in the Clinton White House and now heads the liberal Center for American Progress.

Obama's predecessors often used the run-up to the speech to make news. Officials in the Bush and Clinton White Houses would start leaking details about new initiatives weeks in advance in hopes of grabbing several days' worth of chatter.

But the Obama White House has remained secretive about the speech, offering allies and interest groups few insights into what the president will say. In part, advisers said that was because the speech wasn't yet finished. In his video, Obama said he was "still working on it."

After November's bruising midterm elections, the White House saw the State of the Union as a chance for the president to reassert his authority and shore up his political standing. But after navigating a successful lame-duck session of Congress in December, reshuffling his staff and delivering a well-received speech at the memorial service for the victims of the shootings in Tucson earlier this month, Obama is now in a stronger position politically than his advisers had anticipated.

The theme of political cooperation has resonated in the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy, which set off a national debate about the nation's divisive political culture. Obama is expected to touch on ways in which Democrats and Republicans might work together.

The general mood against political combat has led some advocates for controversial issues to pull back their efforts. Abortion rights groups, convinced the rest of his agenda would drown out their appeals, have opted not to lobby the White House for a plug in the speech.

But other interest groups see an opportunity to frame their appeals in friendly - and especially job-friendly - terms.

In its requests for a mention in the speech, API has argued that the industry employs millions of workers - and could hire even more under the right circumstances. The group is urging lawmakers and the administration to repeal new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and undo new limits on offshore drilling, and a presidential endorsement of its job-creating potential could help bolster the industry's efforts.

Likewise, environmentalists hoping for Obama to talk about the Clean Air Act in the speech want the president to back green energy initiatives, not fossil fuel, as the path to job growth.

"I suspect there's lots of competition for air time," said Paul Billings of the American Lung Association. His was one of several advocacy groups that participated in a conference call last week with a White House official in which they made the case for inclusion in the speech. "But there's also a lot of attention to the Clean Air Act by those who want to weaken, delay or repeal all or part of the act. That's why we're encouraging the president to speak out."

For Obama, one challenge Tuesday will be to build on the success of his speech in Tucson, in which he sought to bring the country together. "It's a different occasion and doesn't need to be the same tone, but it can't be starkly different, either," said Podesta. "People will be judging the speech on the basis of his final call for civility."

Perry Bacon Jr., Scott Wilson, Nick Anderson and Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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