WASHINGTON – Under pressure to energize the economy, President Barack Obama said Saturday he will use his State of the Union address to outline an agenda to create jobs now and boost American competitiveness over the long term.
Heading quickly into re-election mode, Obama is expected to use Tuesday's prime-time speech to promote spending on innovation while also promising to reduce the national debt and cooperate with emboldened Republicans.
"I'm focused on making sure the economy is working for everybody, for the entire American family," Obama said Saturday in an uncommon preview of his speech, offered up in an online video to his supporters late Saturday afternoon. The president announced that the economy would be the main topic of his speech, a nod to how important that issue is to the country's standing and his own as well.
At the halfway point of his term, Obama said the economy is on firmer footing than it was two years ago: it is growing again, albeit slowly, while the stock market is rising, and corporate profits are climbing. But with the unemployment rate stubbornly stuck above 9 percent, Obama will signal a shift Tuesday from short-term stabilization policies toward ones focused on job creation and longer-term growth.
Obama offered no details on specific proposals he will call for in his address, though he has offered hints in recent weeks.
Perhaps the clearest came in an overlooked speech in North Carolina last month, one that will likely serve as a template of what the nation is about to hear. Obama said then that making the U.S. more competitive means investing in a more educated work force, committing more to research and technology, and improving everything from highways and airports to high-speed Internet.
In his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday, Obama also highlighted free trade as a way to increase U.S. exports and put Americans to work.
"That's how we'll create jobs today," Obama said. "That's how we'll make America more competitive tomorrow. And that's how we'll win the future."
Obama's challenge will be to find the money and political will to spend it, at a time when he's pledged to reduce spending and tackle the mountainous debt. In his preview to supporters Saturday, Obama said he would emphasize fiscal restraint Tuesday, but didn't go into detail, saying only that any spending cuts should be done in a "responsible way."
The president is under growing pressure to tackle the debt from the public and lawmakers, particularly some newly elected Republicans who ran on pledges to cut spending. Obama, too, has made spending cuts a priority, setting up a bipartisan fiscal commission which recommended tax hikes and cuts to entitlement programs — both efforts that would likely be a hard sell with the American people.
Obama will speak Tuesday to a Congress changed both by Republican wins in the November election and the attempted assassination of one of its own. Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head two weeks ago during an event in her district in Tucson, Ariz.
Since then, the president has appealed for more civility in politics, and in a nod to that ideal, some Democrats and Republicans will break with tradition and sit alongside each other in the House chamber Tuesday night. Obama hinted Saturday that he would build on that theme during the State of the Union, tying the country's economic success to bipartisan cooperation.
"We're up to it, as long as we come together as a people_Republicans, Democrats, Independents_as long as we focus on what binds us together as a people, as long as we're willing to find common ground even as we're having some very vigorous debates," Obama said.
The White House sees competitiveness as a framework Republicans could support. GOP lawmakers traditionally have backed the types of trade deals and research-and-development efforts that Obama is promoting. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared to give the president an opening when he said last week in a speech that "my advice to my colleagues is if the president is willing to do what we would do anyway, then we should say yes."
Yet for all the talk of bipartisanship, Obama will deliver Tuesday's address at a time when his White House is shifting into re-election mode. Obama plans to file papers to formally run for re-election around March, and several aides are moving to Chicago to run the 2012 campaign. Saturday's video preview to supporters signaled a return to the campaign-style outreach Obama's team mastered in 2008, and underscored his need to rally his base around his agenda.
The White House is keenly aware that Obama's re-election prospects likely hinge on the state of the economy. More than half of those questioned in a new Associated Press-GfK poll disapproved of how he's handled the economy, and just 35 percent said it's improved on his watch. Three-quarters of those surveyed did say it's unrealistic to expect noticeable improvements after two years. They said it will take longer.
Obama's preview Saturday focused exclusively on his domestic agenda, with no mention of foreign policy. Obama is, however, expected to frame his call for competitiveness in global terms, calling for a new Sputnik moment — a reference to the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the first satellite, ahead of the U.S. He intends to say the U.S. is again facing challenges from abroad, this time from fast-growing economies in China, India and throughout Southeast Asia.
In his travels to Asia and during Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent trip to Washington, Obama has said he's been struck by the rapid rise of that region and the laser-like focus on competing in the global economy.
"They are thinking each and every day about how to educate their work force, rebuild their infrastructure, enter into new markets," Obama said in November, after wrapping up a 10-day Asia trip. "We should feel confident about our ability to compete, but we are going to have to step up our game."