WASHINGTON – Eager to show some budget toughness, President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union address to call for a five-year freeze on all discretionary government spending outside of national security, the White House said Tuesday.
The move is almost identical to the freeze Obama called for in his address to the nation last year at this time — his current proposal would cover five years, not three years — and ultimately it may have little effect. Congress decides the budget on its own terms, and Obama has even less sway than he did in his first two years on the job now that Republicans have taken control of the House.
In a political sense, Obama is fighting Republicans for the upper hand in showing fiscal restraint in a time of staggering debt. Public angst over spending was a defining force in the 2010 midterm elections, and it is expected to remain so as Obama's re-election drive begins.
Overall, Obama is trying to convince the American people and a divided Congress that he has a vision for speeding up job creation, promoting spending on the core of his agenda but promising to rein in debt. His speech will reflect reality: The economy trumps all.
The president is also putting his weight behind a five-year plan developed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to limit planned Pentagon budget increases by $78 billion over five years — a plan that's run into opposition from key Republicans. Obama's budget freeze would not touch money related to national security or the politically popular but costly entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
To a nationwide television audience in prime time, Obama will home in on jobs, the issue of most importance to the public and to his hopes for a second term. A smiling president looked relaxed and upbeat at the White House in a brief photo opportunity Tuesday afternoon.
Specifically, he will focus on improving the education, innovation and infrastructure of the United States as the way to provide a sounder economic base. He will pair that with calls to reduce the government's debt — now topping $14 trillion — and reform government. Those five areas will frame the speech, with sprinklings of fresh proposals.
He will wrap it all under the heading of helping the United States to compete more successfully in the world — a "win the future" rallying cry that Obama's aides hopes will resonate with both workers and business executives and bind the political parties.
Yet no matter how ambitious Obama's rhetorical reach, his speech at the halfway point of his term will be viewed in the context of his new political reality.
The midterm elections gave Republicans control of the House and a stronger minority vote in the Senate, meaning he hasn't the option of pushing through changes over GOP objections. The contrast between the two parties' visions remains stark, and where to slash spending, and by how much, will drive much of the debate for the rest of 2011.
Obama's speech will come just hours after the House is to vote on setting spending for the rest of the year at 2008, pre-recession levels. That resolution, largely symbolic, would put Republican lawmakers on record in favor of cutting $100 billion from Obama's budget for the current year, as promised in last year's campaign.
The president is promising to spend and cut at the same time, a politically tricky mix.
Obama's senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said Tuesday morning the administration believes it can make targeted investments in such as education and infrastructure to create a business environment more conducive to job creation, while simultaneously backing budget cuts.
Obama's calls for spending cuts come at the same time he is promoting new investments in areas like education and infrastructure. In order to achieve both, Obama would likely have to make cuts from other areas of the budget, though White House aides haven't said what programs would be affected, or whether Obama would detail those cuts in Tuesday's address.
The president will give nods to American interests around the globe, with a traditional foreign policy section that will cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism threats and diplomacy. But his primary goal is for those watching to emerge with more confidence about the economy of the country and more clarity about his vision for it.
The atmosphere is expected to be more sober and civil than in recent years.
The speech comes less than three weeks after an assassination attempt on Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. She is recovering remarkably well after being shot in the head during a one-man rampage that left six dead. Arizona's congressional delegation will leave an empty seat for Giffords on the House floor Tuesday night.
Among those who will sit with first lady Michelle Obama at the president's speech will be the family of a 9-year-old girl who was killed, an aide to Giffords who rushed to help her at the shooting and trauma surgeons who have treated the wounded lawmaker.
In an attempt at unity following an attack on one of their own, some Democratic and Republican lawmakers will sit together at Obama's speech. Others have dismissed that idea as superficial.
White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes said Obama would build on the calls for unity following the Arizona shootings and appeal Tuesday night for lawmakers to apply that same spirit to their work on Capitol Hill.
"As we are honoring our heroes, as we are honoring people who have faced tough challenges, that reminds us that we can come together to face the tough challenges that confront us as a nation," she said.
The focus on tone comes a year after Obama's rebuke of a Supreme Court decision in his State of the Union speech led Justice Samuel Alito to mouth back from the audience, "Not true." Six justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, will attend Tuesday's address. Alito is in Hawaii this week, and will not attend; neither will Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
The timing also means that Obama will be giving his main policy-driven speech of the year in the shadow of his own highly regarded eulogy for the Tucson victims, which served as a call for national unity and civility. That only makes delivering a successful speech now more difficult, said Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.
"If you want an important speech out of Barack Obama right now, he already gave it," Riley said, referring to the Arizona memorial on Jan. 12. "What's going to happen now with the State of the Union is part of the ongoing story of Washington, and it is a significant event in the political calendar. Yet from a historical perspective, they just tend not to make a difference."
Obama is trying to emphasize economic priorities that can draw both public appeal and enough Republican consideration for at least serious debate.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested Tuesday that Obama has a long road ahead as he tries to court Republican support.
"Voters sent a clear message in November. When it comes to jobs and the economy, the administration's policies have done far more damage than good," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
Republicans have chosen Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to deliver the televised response to Obama's address. He is planning to promote budget cuts as essential to responsible governing, and will speak from the hearing room of the House Budget Committee, which he now chairs.
The president's aides say Obama will talk about cutting spending too, although the details are less clear. In the background are the politically explosive recommendations of his bipartisan commission on how to trim the debt, such as shrinking Social Security benefits and raising the age of eligibility.
The White House said Obama will not dive deeply into policy or offer a list of ideas.
In a new Associated Press-GfK poll, more than half of those surveyed disapproved of how Obama has handled the economy, and just 35 percent said it has improved on his watch. Still, the poll revealed a sense of perspective: Three-quarters of those questioned said it is unrealistic to expect noticeable improvements after two years.
Obama's radio address over the weekend previewed what he is expected to say to the nation on Tuesday.
"We're living in a new and challenging time in which technology has made competition easier and fiercer than ever before. Countries around the world are upping their game and giving their workers and companies every advantage possible," the president said. "But that shouldn't discourage us. Because I know we can win that competition."