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Obama address aims to recast agenda, recapture momentum

Washington pundits are wondering how Barack Obama will use his first annual State of the Union address to get through a time of political vulnerability following a blow to his healthcare reform and months of sagging poll numbers.


In the wake of a stinging political setback and several months of sagging poll numbers, US President Barack Obama delivered his first annual State of the Union address to Congress on Wednesday night.

The speech comes one week after Obama’s Democratic party lost a crucial US Senate seat in Massachusetts, dealing a major blow to the president’s domestic priority of sweeping healthcare reform.

Washington pundits and insiders are aflame with anticipation over how Obama will use his address to navigate this time of political vulnerability, and what balance he will strike between marking a new direction and rekindling the energy and themes that carried him to a historic victory in 2008.

A renewed emphasis on the economy

In an interview with, Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Centre for Politics, explained: “The true value of the State of the Union is the chance to execute a mid-course correction and this is what Obama will likely do.”

Obama is indeed expected to focus on economic issues in an effort to fend off criticism that his year-long push for healthcare reform has distracted him from the problem most urgently affecting Americans.

Though many economists credit the president’s stimulus package from stopping the American economy’s freefall, Republicans have insisted that the plan killed jobs and hurt business. Even some on the left argue that it wasn’t bold enough to yield significant results. With unemployment stuck at 10 percent, senior administration officials have indicated that Obama’s speech will place particular importance on job creation.

Obama will also counter Republican efforts to portray him as an irresponsible spender by highlighting a message of fiscal discipline. A three-year freeze on many domestic spending programmes has already been announced, and administration members have said that the president will also call for a salary freeze for senior White House officials and other political appointees.

How to deal with healthcare?

Many are most eager to hear how Obama will handle the thorny issue of his signature healthcare legislation, left hanging in the balance now that Democrats no longer have the “supermajority” of 60 Senate votes needed to overcome Republican procedural hurdles.

Obama has not yet indicated whether he intends to double down on efforts to get a sweeping overhaul passed – a logistically tricky and politically risky plan of action – or seek a scaled-back bill that could potentially attract bipartisan support.

What Obama says on this subject will be read as an indication of how he is positioning himself in relation to his divided party and to the electorate at large. Liberal Democrats and progressives - generally considered the “base” that propelled Obama to the White House in November 2008 - have been vocal in urging Obama to find a way forward for major healthcare reform, as well as other left-wing agenda items he campaigned on.

More conservative or centrist Democrats, as well as independents who have drifted from Obama in recent months, argue that pushing through a massive healthcare bill would amount to a repudiation of public wishes; polls have shown that less than half of Americans support the healthcare bill, and the Republican victory in Massachusetts was seen by some analysts as a referendum on “Obamacare.”

Looming congressional elections raise stakes

Obama’s task is further complicated by “mid-term” elections to take place in November, in which congressional Democrats are expected to lose seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In an interview with, Democratic operative Chaitanya Komanduri said that Obama’s speech would “set the tone and agenda for Democrats who hope to hold on to Congress, and Republicans who seek to defeat them.”

Komanduri cited the example of former President George W. Bush refusing to back down on increasingly unpopular policies in his 2006 State of the Union address as “setting the stage for the Democratic takeover in Congress.” Vulnerable congressional Democrats up for re-election are therefore likely hoping that Obama avoids divisive subjects like healthcare, and focuses rather on issues like jobs and middle-class tax relief that could bolster party support.

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