By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 1:05 PM
President Obama will call for a broad "competitiveness" initiative in Tuesday night's State of the Union address, proposing a series of steps the United States should take to retain its standing as the world's largest and most influential economy.
White House officials say the speech will include a number of ideas, from increasing the number of U.S. exports to improving the American education system.
In speeches over the last two months, the president has previewed this competitiveness theme - warning in a December address in North Carolina, for example, that without greater innovation, the United States could fall behind other countries, as it did briefly in the 1950s when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth.
In a speech Friday at General Electric plant in Upstate New York, Obama said that the "new mission" of his administration's policies would be to "do everything we can to ensure that businesses can take root and folks can find good jobs and America is leading the global competition that will determine our success in the 21st century."
The competitiveness idea is supposed to link the administration's proposals for increasing spending on education and other longtime Democratic priorities with its agenda to create more jobs as America recovers from the recession.
"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.
But officials have bumped up against multiple problems as they have worked on the economic components of the address, which comes weeks before the White House will release the budget for the next fiscal year.
Administration officials said they do not believe another major stimulus bill is possible with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, leaving the administration struggling to find another mechanism to create jobs. At the same time, many ideas Republicans are willing to embrace - such as a reduction in the payroll tax - have already been included in the December tax deal.
Along with the economic focus, Democratic officials briefed on the speech said, Obama will challenge members of both parties to prove wrong the widely held perception that the next two years will be full of political gridlock.
With members of both parties seated together in the gallery for the first time, the appeal will dovetail with Obama's new-found emphasis on reaching out to Republicans and working more closely with the business community, which opposed much of his agenda during his first two years in office.
In discussing foreign policy, Obama is expected to underscore the end-of-year deadline for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq. Regarding Afghanistan, Obama will highlight 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.
But on other subjects, what exactly the president will say remains unclear.
Gun-control groups are pushing for Obama to embrace stricter gun laws in the wake of the shooting in Tucson. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he wants Obama to support specific legislation, but would be satisfied if the president instead appointed a commission to look at the causes of gun violence.
"A national tragedy took place, there should be a response," Helmke said. He added of the Tucson shooting, "no laws were broken until [the gunman] starting shooting."
White House officials have been noncommittal on supporting any new legislation, and have not said if Obama will address gun control in his speech.
Liberal groups are wary of Obama including in the speech the conclusions of the bipartisan deficit commission, which released a report in December that proposed controversial ideas such as a gradual increase in the retirement age.
The president will emphasize the importance of deficit reduction in the speech, but it's not clear if he will offer specific proposals.
"The White House has prematurely turned to deficit reduction," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal activist group. "Voters are clear, they care about the deficit, but their first priority is jobs and the economy."
The speech is some ways less important than was anticipated a few months ago, because the administration started recalibrating its domestic agenda and approach immediately after the November elections.
"I think the president has gone to school on lessons learned," said Kenneth Duberstein, President Ronald Reagan's onetime chief of staff, one of many Washington veterans Obama consulted after his party's election defeat in November. "One would hope he continues to down the path that began in the lame-duck session as far as reaching out."
And while the speech will loom large on prime-time television Tuesday night, and in the media stratosphere for many hours afterward, experts cautioned that its shelf life will most likely be relatively short.
"Who remembers them six weeks later, let alone a year or two," said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. "How many State of the Union addresses do people remember? They don't resonate that way."
Staff writers Anne Kornblut and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.