President Obama’s jobs speech before Congress on Thursday evening is the first step in a fall campaign by the White House to force congressional Republicans to the bargaining table or risk being painted as a party that is doing nothing to help struggling Americans, according to Democratic sources familiar with the administration’s strategy.

Parts of the speech to a joint session of Congress were released on Thursday evening, and ask whether government officials can “stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy.”

“Those of us here tonight cannot solve all of our nation’s woes. Ultimately, our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers. But we can help,” Obama plans to say. “We can make a difference. There are steps we can take right now to improve people’s lives.”

Obama plans to send Congress legislation entitled the American Jobs Act, which he said “should be nothing controversial,” and completely paid for.

“The purpose of the American Jobs Act is simple: to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working,” the president will say. “You should pass this jobs plan right away.”

Obama will lay out his proposals for at least a $300 billion package that aims to boost the economy through a mix of tax cuts and infrastructure investments. Some pundits have called it a make-or-break speech for a president whose approval ratings have nose-dived this summer.

But inside the White House, administration officials view the speech as part of a grand strategy in which Obama will follow up with a series of events over the next few months to continue to sell his vision to the public, the Democratic sources said.

And he will make clear, if Republicans are unwilling to support him, that the GOP apparently believes the economic crisis is not serious enough to warrant government action to fix it, the sources said.

Obama is scheduled to speak at the University of Richmond on Friday, where he will “talk about the bipartisan proposals to grow the economy and create jobs,” according to the White House.

The strategy expands the message Obama has been airing over the past month. But it won’t be an easy sell. Republicans have countered by blaming Obama’s policies for the struggling economy and suggesting that a new round of government spending will not solve the unemployment crisis.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that jobless claims rose by 2,000 to 414,000 for the week ending Sept. 3. The department said last week that no net jobs were created in August.

“Many of us have been calling on the president to propose something different tonight. Not because of politics, but because the kind of policies he’s proposed have failed,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.) said Thursday in a statement. “It’s time the president start thinking less about how to describe his policies differently and more time thinking about devising new policies. And he might start by working with Congress, instead of writing in secret, without any consultation with Republicans, a plan that the White House is calling bipartisan.”

Meantime, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sent a letter to Obama this week asking to meet with him before the speech and suggesting that he work with Republicans to develop a job creation plan.

It is “critical that our differences not preclude us from taking action in areas where there is common agreement,” they wrote. By calling on the president to work with them, Republicans can make it harder for Obama to portray them as obstinate.

Republicans also are appealing directly to the public. In a bit of counter-programming to Obama’s plans, Cantor scheduled his own appearance Friday in Richmond, which is part of his congressional district, to speak about the economy.

And Boehner said Thursday that he has invited more than a dozen private-sector “job creators” to watch Obama’s address from the House gallery. They include Spencer Weitman, president of National Cement in Ragland, Ala., and Eric Treiber, chief executive of Chicago White Metal Casing.

The business executives were recruited by Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) as part of Republicans’ outreach to “employers hampered by excessive regulation in Washington,” Boehner’s office said.

Still, the White House believes that the president has a chance to win the upper hand in the jobs debate. Though polls show the president’s public approval ratings at record lows, administration officials are confident that, with the election 14 months away, there will be many more twists to the unemployment narrative between now and November 2012, the Democratic sources said.

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