WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will focus his State of the Union address on boosting job creation and economic growth at a time of high unemployment, underscoring the degree to which the economy could threaten his ability to pursue second-term priorities such as gun control, immigration policy and climate change.
Obama also may use Tuesday’s prime-time address before a joint session of Congress to announce the next steps for concluding the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Obama’s State of the Union marks his second high-profile speech to the nation in about three weeks, after his inaugural address Jan. 21 that opened his second term. White House aides see the two speeches as complementary, with Tuesday’s address aimed at providing specifics to back up some of the Inauguration Day’s lofty liberal rhetoric.
The president previewed the address during a meeting Thursday with House Democrats and said he would speak “about making sure that we’re focused on job creation here in the United States of America.” Obama said he would try to accomplish that by calling for improvements in education, boosting clean energy production, and reducing the deficit in ways that don’t burden the middle class, the poor or the elderly.
While those priorities may be cheered by some Democrats, they’re certain to be met with skepticism or outright opposition from many congressional Republicans, especially in the GOP-controlled House. The parties are at odds over ways to reduce the deficit. Republicans favor spending cuts; Obama prefers a combination of spending cuts and increasing tax revenue.
The president said he would address taxes and looming across-the-board budget cuts, known as the sequester, in the speech. The White House and Congress have pushed back the automatic cuts once, and Obama wants to do it again in order to create an opening for a larger deficit reduction deal.
“I am prepared, eager and anxious to do a big deal, a big package that ends this governance by crisis where every two weeks or every two months or every six months we are threatening this hard-won recovery,” he said last week.
The economy has rebounded significantly from the depths of the recession and has taken a back seat for Obama since he won re-election in November. He’s instead focused on campaigns to overhaul the nation’s patchwork immigration laws and enact stricter gun control measures following the massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., in December.
The president also raised expectations for action this year on climate change after devoting a significant amount of time to the issue in his address at the inauguration.
But the unemployment rate is persistently high at 7.9 percent, economic growth slowed last quarter and consumer confidence is falling, so the economy could upend Obama’s plans to pursue a broader domestic agenda in his final four years in office.
Tony Fratto, who worked in the White House during President George W. Bush’s second term, said Obama has to show the public that he’s still focused on the economy before he can get their full support for his other proposals.
“We’re not in a position where he can blame anybody else for the economy now,” Fratto said, “Now it’s his economy.”
Obama is expected to use his address to press lawmakers to back his immigration overhaul, which includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, and his gun control proposals, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
Voting rights groups expect the president to call for changes that would make it easier for people to vote.
“I think it’s important to be able to do more than one thing at a time,” said David Axelrod, who served as senior adviser in the White House and Obama’s re-election campaign. “But the economy is an ongoing and significant challenge that you have to keep working on.”
While the centerpiece of Obama’s address is expected to be his domestic agenda, the president sees a chance to outline the next steps in bringing the protracted war in Afghanistan to an end. He’s facing two pressing decisions: the size and scope of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after the war formally ends late next year, and the next phase of the troop drawdown this year.
More than 60,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan.
The president could update the public on cuts to the number of U.S. nuclear weapons, a priority for his administration. Vice President Joe Biden recently told a security conference in Germany that Obama probably would use the State of the Union to discuss “advancing a comprehensive nuclear agenda to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, reduce global stockpiles and secure nuclear materials.”
White House allies are nudging Obama’s team to move forward on a plan to expand education for children before they enter kindergarten. They are reminding Obama’s political aides that female voters gave the president a second term, serving up a 10-point gender gap.
Obama carried 55 percent of female voters, many of whom are looking to the White House for their reward. While groups such as Latinos and gays have seen policy initiatives since Election Day, women’s groups have not received the same kinds of rollouts.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising Republican star and potential 2016 presidential candidate, will deliver the GOP response following Obama’s address to Congress.
The president will follow up his speech with trips across the country to promote his calls for job creation. Stops are planned Wednesday in Asheville, N.C., and Thursday in Atlanta.
Obama’s speechwriters started working on the speech shortly after the Nov. 6 election. The process is being led for the first time by Cody Keenan, who is taking over as the president’s chief speechwriter.