WASHINGTON — His presidency at a crossroads, President Barack Obama is promising in his first State of the Union address to solve the economic worries foremost on Americans' minds and become the transformative leader they thought they were getting.
Set to speak in prime time Wednesday night before a politician-packed House chamber and a TV audience of millions, Obama looked to change the conversation from how his presidency is stalling — over a messy health care debate, a limping economy and the missteps that led to Christmas Day's barely averted terrorist disaster — to how he is seizing the reins.
The president will devote about two-thirds of the 8 p.m. CST speech to the economy, emphasizing his ideas, some new but mostly old and explained anew, for restoring job growth, taming budget deficits and changing Washington's ways. These concerns are at the roots of voter emotions that once drove supporters to Obama but now are turning on him as he governs.
To address economic fears, Obama will prod Congress to enact a second stimulus package and to provide new financial relief for the middle class. To acknowledge frustration at the government's habit of spending more than it has, he will seek a three-year freeze on some domestic spending (while proposing a 6.2 percent, or $4 billion, increase in the popular arena of education and supporting the debt-financed jobs bill) and announce he's creating a bipartisan deficit-reduction task force. To tackle the capital's polarized atmosphere, he will call on Republicans and Democrats to redouble efforts at cooperation.
Even before Obama spoke, many of the new proposals the White House revealed in advance were being dismissed — on the right or the left — as poorly targeted or too modest to make a difference.
Throughout, Obama aims to show he understands Americans' struggles to pay bills while big banks get bailouts and bonuses. Trying to position himself as a fighter for the regular guy, he'll urge Congress to blunt the impact of last week's Supreme Court decision handing corporations greater influence over elections.
Obama met with his speechwriters in the Oval Office in the morning and later practiced his delivery from a podium in the White House residence. The speech is estimated to run as long as 75 minutes, accounting for interruptions of applause within the House chamber.
The guest list for first lady Michelle Obama's box in the gallery provides another message vehicle, featuring stories from entrepreneurial immigrants to families trying to make ends meet.
With State of the Union messages constitutionally required and traditionally delivered at the end of January, Obama lucked into one of the presidency's biggest platforms just a week after Republicans scored an upset takeover of a Senate seat in Massachusetts. That election prompted hand-wringing over Obama's leadership and the state of his agenda.
Obama will stand before a country dispirited by unemployment in double digits and federal deficits soaring to a record $1.4 trillion. He also faces a Democratic Party increasingly concerned about the fallen standing of a president they hoped would lead them through this fall's midterm elections.
Republicans sought to capitalize on the Democrats' tough straits with their response choice: Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who took his state from Democratic hands two months ago in one of the GOP's recent major election victories.
Obama wanted to avoid the usual: a feel-good assessment of the nation's health and a presidential laundry list of new proposals and priorities. Instead, he aimed for a plainspoken narrative, hoping to tell his presidency's story — looking forward and back — in a way that rekindles the energy he harnessed for his historic election.
Having already admitted he has failed since taking office to explain his agenda and connect with voters, Obama planned to further acknowledge missteps in communication and process. At the same time, he planned an unapologetic defense of pursuing the same agenda on which he won.
That includes an overhaul of the nation's health care system, an aggressive approach to global warming, sweeping changes to address the millions of illegal immigrants and radical reforms of how Wall Street is regulated and children are educated.
Health care, in particular, was imperiled by the Massachusetts election that erased Democrats' Senate supermajority, needed to pass most legislation.
Obama planned to make his commitment to his signature domestic priority clear and to urge lawmakers to enact a far-reaching bill rather than a smaller-bore solution. Sticking to his well-established pattern, however, he will not offer a specific prescription for salvaging a bill, said White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
"In the days ahead there will be plenty of time to lay out strategic courses of action," Jarrett said.
In a remarkable shift from past addresses and notable for a president whose candidacy first caught fire over Iraq war opposition, foreign policy is taking a relative back seat.
The section will come behind the economy and be largely devoid of new policy, with Obama providing an update on the Afghanistan escalation he just ordered, looking ahead to the end of U.S. combat in Iraq and his hosting of an international nuclear weapons summit and promising an aggressive fight against terrorists.
In a signal the Obama team considers itself at a turning point, it is reverting to techniques that successfully galvanized the grassroots during his campaign.
Obama's political arm-in-waiting, Obama for America, which has assumed a low profile since his election, texted information to supporters about joining watch parties. The White House also asked people to submit questions on YouTube.com/CitizenTube — saying Obama will answer them during an online event next week.
The president was keeping the State of the Union tradition of hitting the road to continue pressing his case. He will travel to Florida on Thursday to announce $8 billion for high-speed rail development, to Maryland on Friday to speak to a House Republican retreat, and to New Hampshire onTuesday for a jobs-focused event. Cabinet officials were fanning out too.
On Monday, Obama's priorities get another boost of attention as he submits his 2011 budget request to Congress.