At core of Obama's State of the Union address: the middle class

Job creation and building the middle class will get special emphasis in President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, administration officials say. Will the speech also make liberals glow, as his inaugural did?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama walks towards the podium to make remarks during a Farewell Tribute for outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Friday, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va. President Obama will give his State of the Union address Tuesday night, with special emphasis on job creation and building the middle class, administration officials say.

President Obama’s second inaugural last month sent liberal hearts aflutter with talk of climate change, gun control, and gay rights, and a robust defense of the social safety net.

Expect no less a progressive call to action in his State of the Union address Tuesday night (9 p.m. Eastern), with special emphasis on the core challenge of Mr. Obama’s presidency – job creation and building the middle class, administration officials say.

“He will focus on the proposals that are necessary to help the middle class grow and help the economy grow,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

Mr. Carney declined to lay out specifics, but the outlines have been widely reported. The president will talk about the need for investment in infrastructure and education, aimed at boosting manufacturing and training workers for jobs in that sector. He will also continue his promotion of sustainable energy, a topic that got its own paragraph in his inaugural speech.

Obama will also repeat his plea to avoid the deep, automatic federal spending cuts known as the “sequester” that are due to take effect March 1. Any notion that Obama will back away from his recent aggressive posture toward the Republicans seems unlikely.

“He won the election, and he’s got to claim whatever mandate he can for the positions he openly ran on and the commitments he made,” says Thomas Hollihan, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The economy is No. 1, says Mr. Hollihan, because Obama will be judged in large part on the basis of what happens with job creation and growth, especially going into the midterm elections. Immigration reform is critical, because of the large Latino vote Obama received – a segment of the electorate that may not turn out for the Democrats in such large numbers again if they don’t feel the president has done everything he can to deliver for them.

Gun violence will give this year’s State of the Union (SOTU) address its emotional core, nearly two months after the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., that shocked the president and the nation. Democratic members of Congress are bringing some two dozen guests who have been touched by gun violence. The parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teenager who was shot and killed last month, will join first lady Michelle Obama for the speech.  

And in a move that threatens to take the gun theme in an off-key direction, rocker Ted Nugent will be joining Rep. Steve Stockman (R) of Texas for the speech. Last year, Mr. Nugent was investigated (and cleared) by the Secret Service after comments he made at a National Rifle Association convention.

Obama is expected to repeat his call for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, though the gun-control measure with the best chance of passage is one calling for universal background checks on gun buyers.

But the economy and budget deficit are expected to take center stage during Obama’s speech, his fifth annual address to a joint session of Congress. The most urgent matter is the sequester; if it takes effect, Obama says, it will devastate the economy.

The president last week called on Congress to pass a short-term package of spending cuts and tax hikes to buy some time for continued negotiation on a larger deal. Obama says he is willing to give on some aspects of entitlement programs as part of a grand bargain. For example, he is willing to reduce the annual cost-of-living increases for Social Security, Carney said Monday, as long as it is part of a comprehensive package that includes increased tax revenues. But Obama has ruled out raising the eligibility age for Medicare

It’s not clear if Obama will lay out more of his views on entitlement reform Tuesday night. But in general, he is not expected to offer much beyond a perfunctory nod to bipartisanship, in keeping with the less-than-conciliatory tone of his second inaugural.

In his weekly video address last weekend, Obama made clear whom he believes deserves blame for the sequester battle.

“The current Republican plan puts the burden of avoiding those cuts mainly on seniors and middle-class families,” Obama said. “They would rather ask more from the vast majority of Americans and put our recovery at risk than close even a single tax loophole that benefits the wealthy.”

For now, public opinion works in Obama’s favor. His job approval rating remains above water – in the low 50s – compared with the congressional Republicans’ abysmal public ratings. But positive job approval ratings are a tool, and not an end unto themselves. Generally, State of the Union addresses have almost no effect on public attitudes toward the president, says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

“This speech can’t be about ripping loose and getting everything off his chest,” says Mr. Mellman. “The most important goal of the speech is to help get something done. It’s an opportunity to move some action forward in Congress.”

After the State of the Union, Obama will continue his campaign-style efforts to promote his agenda. On Wednesday, he heads to Ashville, N.C., Thursday to Atlanta, and Friday to Chicago.  

Obama will “discuss proposals, unveiled in the speech, that focus on strengthening the economy for the middle class and those striving to get there,” Carney said in a statement Sunday announcing the president’s travel plans.  

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