President Barack Obama on Tuesday faces a US public hungry for jobs, and Republicans eager to oust him, when he delivers his yearly “State of the Union” speech in a tense new era of power-sharing.
Obama steps up at 9:00 pm (0200 GMT Wednesday) to address a joint session of the US Congress and a television audience in the tens of millions in his highest profile shot at defining his reinvigorated, retooled presidency.
Ahead of the speech, Republicans warned they would reject his calls for increased spending on education, research and infrastructure and redoubled their calls for a painful belt-tightening in Washington.
Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor scoffed at the notion that Washington was an engine of “innovation” and said “everything is on the table” when it comes time to slash government spending.
Obama’s speech came after he scored a series of year-end wins — approval of a landmark nuclear treaty with Russia, a compromise tax deal — following what he freely dubbed a “shellacking” of his fellow Democrats in November 2 elections.
The White House described the “lame duck” session, which also saw Congress vote to lift a ban on gays serving openly in the US military, as a possible model for Obama’s political comeback.
“People put aside game-playing and broad bipartisan majorities made progress on behalf of the American people,” said spokesman Robert Gibbs. “It’s a pretty good road map.”
The spokesman acknowledged that high-profile staff reshuffles meant a retooled approach to policy but denied that Obama himself had undergone any fundamental change, even as Democrats worried about a rightward shift.
“The president is still the same president that we’ve had for more than two years,” Gibbs said, as polls showed independent voters who abandoned Obama after carrying him to the White House in 2008 slowly coming back to the fold.
Cantor also highlighted the tax deal, which saw Obama buy a tax cut extension for the middle class at the price of abandoning his once firm opposition to extending tax cuts for the richest Americans, as a model.
“The tax deal itself is a great example of how the two sides can work together and I’m hoping that we could do so yet again, especially as it deals with the number one priority, which is jobs and the economy,” he said.
The annual showpiece speech, with its repeated ritual standing ovations, offers a president a rare chance to set the political narrative by speaking directly to voters in a way the fractured media climate rarely allows.
Obama is riding new momentum after slowing Republicans following their mid-term election triumph as he tracks toward the center ground and the independent voters he needs to win for re-election.
The president also made his most direct connection with Americans yet, when his soaring call for civility stilled a row sparked by an Arizona shooting rampage.
Several people connected to the January 8 attack that killed six and left congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life will be guests of First Lady Michelle Obama’s box for the address, including the family of nine-year-old victim Christina Taylor Green.
Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in September by Obama, soldiers who fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, small business owners, corporate executives and students were also among the invitees.
Although the economic recovery is speeding up, many Americans are still struggling, with unemployment at 9.4 percent — a potential area of political liability for Obama.
The president was also expected to address America’s huge deficit in an effort to define the budget and debt debate looming with the Republican-led House, with Gibbs expressing hope for “bipartisan discussion” and collaboration rather than the acrimonious debate of recent months.
Obama was also sure to highlight what his top commanders describe as fragile progress in the war in Afghanistan and note that he is on track to fulfill a campaign promise to pull US troops out of Iraq by the end of this year, as well as defend his historic health care law from Republican repeal attempts.
And he will likely frame key aspects of his foreign policy — engaging China, his trip last year to India and a free trade pact with South Korea — as evidence of a focus on job and export creation.
Meanwhile, dozens of lawmakers have heeded the call for a more civil tone, which was to be on full display during Tuesday’s speech when they depart from the usual seating that divides the two parties.
Nearly 60 members of the House and Senate have signed on to a letter endorsing the mixed seating plan that will see some Republicans and Democrats sitting symbolically side by side.