Based on some recent previews, President Obama’s State of the Union address next Tuesday will aim for the tricky balance of claiming credit for promises he has kept while tacitly acknowledging that he needs to do a lot more.
This year’s report to Congress will come against the the backdrop of a still-sluggish jobs market and a restive American electorate eager for more signs of economic progress, and in recent speeches, Obama has begun to re-embrace his 2008 theme of change by seeking to link his accomplishments to the idea of change.
The president has been using the refrain“Change is . . . ” to catalogue a list of actions — including rescuing the auto industry, enacting health-care reform and ending the war in Iraq — he hopes will increase his reelection chances.
“We’ve begun to see what change looks like,” Obama told hundreds of supporters in Chicago last week.
At the same time, he has rolled out a series of initiatives intended to emphasize his determination to fight on behalf of ordinary Americans as the administration struggles to restore public confidence in the economic recovery.
Over 11 days this month, Obama installed his choice to head a consumer financial watchdog agency despite Republican opposition; called for tax breaks for businesses that return jobs from overseas; and asked Congress to give him broad power to restructure government agencies.
On the surface, the initiatives appeared to have little in common, except that Obama tied them together as victories for the little guy — a family that nearly lost its home in the stock market crash, factory workers looking for jobs; small-business owners trying to break through the federal bureaucracy.
“The competition for new jobs, for businesses, for middle-class security — that’s a race I know we can win,” Obama said. “But America is not going to win if we give in to those who think that we can only respond to our challenges with the same tired, old tune — just hand out more tax cuts to folks who don’t need them and weren’t even asking for them, let companies do whatever they want, hope that prosperity somehow trickles down on everybody else’s head. It doesn’t work.”
White House aides said the president’s national address before Congress next Tuesday will draw heavily on the themes he laid out last month in Osawatomie, Kan., where he tried to channel Theodore Roosevelt’s urgent middle-class populism of a century ago and warned of a growing income inequality gap.
Gone is Obama’s lofty 2011 State of the Union call to “win the future” through long-term infrastructure investments, replaced by the more tangible set of “we can’t wait” executive actions to jump-start the economy that he has taken without congressional approval.
The president’s two-tiered strategy — demonstrating progress while assuring audiences that there is much more to come — aims to neutralize his biggest vulnerabilities: the sluggish economy and stubbornly high unemployment rate of 8.5 percent.
Although there have been modest upticks in job creation in recent months, the White House has been cautious about appearing too upbeat, mindful of Republican critics that link the economic recovery to what they call Obama’s failed policies.
Republican operatives in Washington have developed a 500-page playbook dedicated to attacking the president for, they say, not living up to the promises of “hope and change” he made during his 2008 campaign.
“The last three years have held a lot of change, but they haven’t offered much hope,” GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said in a speech after winning the New Hampshire primary last Tuesday.
He cast Obama as a president who resents free-market success and, through a bloated government awash in new regulations, wishes to establish a “European-style entitlement society.”
“The middle class has been crushed,” Romney said. “Nearly 24 million of our fellow Americans are still out of work, struggling to find work, or have just stopped looking. . . . And this president wakes up every morning, looks out across America and is proud to announce, ‘It could be worse.’ ”
Despite the criticism, Obama advisers say the president’s populist stance has provided a sharp contrast to the GOP, especially as Romney has been hit by Republican rivals and the Obama campaign over his tenure as head of Bain Capital. The private equity firm reaped large profits by restructuring failing companies and outsourcing jobs overseas.
Last week, in an event that took symbolic advantage of Romney’s situation, Obama held a White House summit for business leaders to discuss strategies for in-sourcing jobs, calling for new tax breaks for companies that relocate factories from abroad.
His recess appointment this month of Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, coming just weeks after Senate Republicans had rejected Cordray’s nomination, began the new year by signaling Obama’s intention to bypass Congress after a year of bitter gridlock between the White House and Capitol Hill.
And the president used the occasion to remind audiences of the financial changes his administration put in place as a result of the 2009 recession.
Republican leaders have denounced Obama’s executive actions, especially the Cordray appointment, calling the president an imperial leader who has washed his hands of the democratic process nearly a year before the election.
But the White House has tried to employ the congressional pushback in its favor, using it to buttress a narrative in which Obama is fighting against an entrenched Washington establishment as he promised four years ago.
“These changes weren’t easy,” the president told the crowd in Chicago. “Some were risky. Almost all of them came in the face of fierce opposition, powerful lobbyists, special interests who spent millions trying to maintain the status quo. And not all the steps we took were politically popular at the time, certainly not politically popular with the crowd in Washington.”