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State of the Union Comes at Crucial Moment for Obama Presidency

January 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address tonight at a crucial time for the nation and his presidency.

GWEN IFILL: As Mr. Obama reaches the lowest point yet in his year-old term in office.

The president smiled for photographers today, but his apparent good cheer did nothing to lessen the stakes for his speech tonight. One year after taking office, his approval ratings have slumped. And, last week, his party lost their supermajority in the Senate.

White House officials say tonight’s address will mark a shift in tone and emphasis, in response to a rising public anger over the state of the economy.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So long as I have the privilege of serving as your president, I will not stop fighting for you.

GWEN IFILL: The bulk of tonight’s speech, aides said, will focus on issues that resonate with distressed Americans, like job creation.

BARACK OBAMA: You can expect a continued, sustained and relentless effort to create good jobs for the American people.

GWEN IFILL: And in a preview earlier this week, the president also promised to renew his focus on the plight of the middle class.

BARACK OBAMA: We’re going to keep fighting to rebuild our economy, so that hard work is once again rewarded, wages and incomes are once again rising, and the middle class is once again growing.

GWEN IFILL: The president is also expected to direct more tough talk to Wall Street, asking Congress to help curb the size of the largest financial institutions.

BARACK OBAMA: We have to enact commonsense reforms that will protect American taxpayers and the American economy from future crises as well.

GWEN IFILL: At the same time, Mr. Obama will also call for a freeze on some domestic spending in a bid to address unhappiness with the soaring federal deficit.

But there will be some new spending, as the president announces the largest-ever single-year request for elementary and secondary education. Health care reform, which has suffered recent setbacks on Capitol Hill, will get its due. But aides said it will be far from the focus of the president’s remarks.

At the Capitol today, Democrats like Congressman John Larson of Connecticut and others said they hope the president’s words can revitalize the party.

REP. JOHN LARSON, D-Conn.: He’s never given a bad speech.

GWEN IFILL: Democrat Eliot Engel of New York:

REP. ELIOT ENGEL, D-N.Y.: Let’s rally behind our president. The people sent us here to work together in a bipartisan faction. Let’s not look about what’s best politically for this party or that party. Let’s look at what’s best for the American people.

GWEN IFILL: But Republicans remain skeptical.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor.

REP. ERIC CANTOR, R-Va.: We want to see that the president has listened, has learned that the agenda he has promoted over the last year just hasn’t yielded the results that people had hoped.

Right now, families across America are around the kitchen table are worried about prospects for their employment, worried about the future for their kids.

GWEN IFILL: The president will address the nation this evening at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time.

Now for a White House preview of today’s address, we are joined by David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president.

Welcome, Mr. Axelrod.

DAVID AXELROD, senior White House adviser: Thanks, Gwen. Good to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: We have heard so many times that this next speech that the president is going to give, whatever it is, is the speech of a lifetime.

What makes tonight different?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, you know, that is what Washington does every speech. It becomes the speech of a lifetime.

But no doubt it’s an important speech. And it’s an important speech because Americans have been through a very difficult time and they’re looking for a sense of what the future will hold. The president is going to talk about where we have been and where we’re going and how we create jobs in this country that pay well, see wages grow, and secure the middle-class again, after this very difficult period we have been through.

GWEN IFILL: The president is expected to call for a three-year spending — freeze on some domestic spending, and, yet also for an increase in education spending. How do you balance all that out?

DAVID AXELROD: Just like any family or business does, Gwen. Everybody in hard times has to make choices. You have to prioritize. You have to do without the things you can do without in order to pay for the things you do.

Education has to be a priority for this country because it’s so much tied to the quality of life that our young people will live, and also the competitiveness of our country.

So, we have to make those investments. But we’re going to have to do without some other things. The president will and we will be walking about that in our budget message next week.

GWEN IFILL: When it comes to prioritizing, did the White House expend too much political capital on health care this year?

DAVID AXELROD: No, I don’t think so.

The fact is that this is a problem that has plagued our country for 100 years. Seven presidents have tried to address it. And it’s only gotten worse. And it’s one of those pressures that really impacts on families across this country. It’s one of the things that’s made the middle class less secure. It affects families, businesses, and the government itself.

And it deserves and needs an answer. Health insurance reform is absolutely essential. But we knew it would be tough. We understood that we would have to spend some political capital to try and solve that problem. And the president was committed to getting done what should have been done long ago.

GWEN IFILL: Your problems with the conservatives on the Republican side of the aisle are well-documented. We don’t expect a lot of applause tonight on that side of the aisle, but what about the liberals who have said that the president should be drawing a line in the sand on his priorities? What is the president going to say to them?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, has he spent too much political capital and then say he hasn’t drawn lines in the sand.

I think the president has proven his commitment and his determination to deal with this problem. We also have to deal with the realities of Congress and of passing a program that can garner the necessary votes. And you’re right. We haven’t had much cooperation from the other side of the aisle.

One of the messages the president is going to deliver tonight is that we all have a responsibility for governing here, and the American people are looking to us to work together to solve problems. The Republican Party can’t spend another year sitting on the sidelines rooting for failure. They need to get in the arena and help solve some problems, because these are difficult times, and it should be all hands on deck.

GWEN IFILL: And yet a new Gallup poll today shows the president getting 88 percent approval among Democrats, only 23 percent among Republicans. What can he do? What can he say to help close that gap?

DAVID AXELROD: Look, I understand that this is the hobbyhorse of everybody in this town. And I read polls, too.

But I think the president’s view is that the most important thing he can do is tackle the problems facing this country in an honest, forthright way. And, you know, these numbers will go up and down. And, yes, partisanship is a — and polarization is a big problem.

But, ultimately, the problems that people are worried about are not who’s up and who’s down, but how they pay their bills, how they educate their kids, whether they have a job, can they afford their mortgages, and what the future looks like. And that’s what we all ought to be focused on.

GWEN IFILL: But as long as polarization remains the kind of a problem that you concede it is, how does the president get to those goals?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, in part, the American people are going to have to step in and make their voices heard. I think much has been made of this election in Massachusetts.

I think the most interesting thing about it was how much that message seemed to be that they were tired of the hyper-partisanship in Washington. They wanted people to work together. They said in their — in the polling that I saw after the election, we want this new senator, Senator Brown, to come and work with the administration, with the Democrats, to solve problems.

That’s not been the — that’s not been the strategy, that’s not been the playbook of the Republicans on Capitol Hill. And I think that will catch up with them as a political matter. But the country needs them to realize that’s not where people want them to go.

GWEN IFILL: You bring up the election last week, the special election in Massachusetts. As the presidents enters these next few months leading up to midterm elections later this year, is this going to be a referendum on his presidency?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I don’t know. You guys will decide that. In Massachusetts, people said, no. The people who voted for Brown said they weren’t voting to send — a majority of them said they weren’t voting to send the president a message.

But, again, these are things that frustrate the American people. They’re not interested in the scorekeeping. They’re not interested in who’s up and who’s down and the politics. They just want us to solve problems. They want us to work on the things that they see right in front of them in their lives on the unemployment problem, on the — yes, the cost of health care, on the cost of educating kids, on the mortgage crisis, and so on.

That’s where we’re going to focus our time. And our attitude is, if you do the work, if you do the hard work of advocating for the American people and solving problems, that they will respond.

GWEN IFILL: David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, thank you so much for joining us.