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Obama to focus on jobs, growth in State of the Union speech

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2013 - WASHINGTON – Last month, President Barack Obama waxed eloquent about social equality and collective action as he addressed a million people on the National Mall in an inaugural speech that was heavy on ideology and relatively light on the specifics of his second-term agenda.

Tonight, Obama is expected to shift emphasis to jobs, fill in the blanks in policy details, and outline some new proposals when he speaks in the U.S. House chamber in a State of the Union address to the 535 members of Congress who will determine how many of his goals are realized.

“The president has always viewed the two speeches, the Inaugural Address and the State of The Union, as two acts in the same play,” White House press spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

He predicted that tonight’s speech -- likely to be more aggressive than last year's speech -- will refocus on jobs while sounding the inaugural’s clarion call for action on issues such gun control and immigration reform. “You will hear in the State of the Union an outline from him for his plan to create jobs and grow the middle class,” Carney told reporters.

The main message: “We have come far since the depths of the worst recession in our lifetimes, but we still have a ways to go and we need to ... make the right choices, the right investments together with Congress to move our economy forward to help the middle class be more secure and expand.”

Obama’s fifth address to a joint session of Congress comes at the height of the president’s second-term confidence, as he starts dealing with a newly elected Congress with more Democrats; before he becomes a lame duck (traditionally in the second half of his term); and before House members and a third of the senators start revving up their re-election campaigns.

While jobs and economic growth are expected to dominate Obama’s speech, there also will mention of immigration reform and efforts to lessen gun violence. Congressional Republicans are likely to be receptive to the president’s immigration proposals, but gun-control measures may hit roadblocks in the GOP-led House.

Among other likely themes in Tuesday night’s speech will be the need to invest more in the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure, boost manufacturing and exports, invest in scientific research, and further enhance U.S. energy production. Obama also may suggest ways to make college more affordable for young Americans, many of whom are taking on massive student-loan burdens.

Budget concerns may limit new programs

The challenge of implementing such initiatives is that, at a time when many Republicans are focused on deficit reduction, Obama and congressional Democrats will have trouble gaining approval for ambitious new spending programs this year.

The deficit issue is now the Elephant in the Room on Capitol Hill –  across-the-board “sequestration” cuts could start March 1 if Congress fails to change or delay them. And while Obama is unlikely to get into the nitty-gritty of that debate in his State of the Union speech, that issue serves as the backdrop for the upcoming struggle between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

The two main points of view on deficit reduction and the sequester were laid out this week by the No. 2 Senate Democrat, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and the fifth-ranking Republican Senate leaders, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

“Sequestration was designed as a budget threat, not as a budget strategy,” Durbin said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “And I think all of us understand that if it goes forward in less than three weeks, it’s going to have a dramatic negative impact on many agencies, equally important on the economy. So we need to come together.”

While Obama and Durbin argue for a sequester alternative that involves both targeted spending cuts and closing tax loopholes, Blunt argues that Republicans – who agreed to a tax increase on the wealthy as part of the Fiscal Cliff deal on New Year’s Day – have no stomach for what he refers to as further tax increases.

Saying “I’m not going to be for tax increases,” Blunt told Fox News on Monday that he thinks “the [spending] cuts are going to happen. … I think the best solution is to let the Defense Department target those cuts, rather than take across the board cuts” as called for in the sequester.

Blunt said Obama “ought to call the leaders to the White House and figure out what needs to happen here so we do the right thing in the right way, rather than the right thing in the wrong way. Everybody knows we’ve got to reduce spending, and we have to decide what spending we’re going to reduce.”

Climate change, arms control goals

Environmental groups say one major question is whether the president – after his stirring but general statement in the Inaugural address about the need to curb climate change – will offer specific proposals in tonight’s speech to reduce U.S. emissions.

At an appearance at St. Louis Country Library in Frontenac on Saturday, former Vice President Al Gore – a champion of the climate change issue – said he hopes Obama will discuss climate change issues ignored during last fall’s campaign.

Gore contended that solar and wind energy have become more cost-effective and that long-running federal subsidies for the oil and coal industries are not needed. Warning that China is now producing more solar components than this country, Gore said America should do more to promote and further develop the technology.

“We invented these technologies," Gore said. “We ought to be creating the jobs here.”

White House aides also expect Obama to mention his long-running priority of negotiating verifiable agreements that would allow the United States to gradually reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal, perhaps by as much as a third.

The New York Times reported that Obama won’t discuss specific arms-reduction numbers, but said one goal would slowly reduce the U.S. arsenal of deployed nuclear weapons to about 1,000 from the current 1,700.

Another issue that may come up in the speech is Obama’s plan to issue a presidential directive -- possibly this week -- aimed at deterring cyber-attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure, financial institutions and certain companies.

Shortly after his speech, Obama planned to take part in a conference call with supporters who will be attending State of the Union watch parties hosted by Organizing for Action -- the new interest group that evolved from his former campaign organization. Aides sad the president would join a online Google+ “hangout” for awhile to discuss his priorities.

Starting on Wednesday, Obama will embark on a post-speech trip to drive home his main themes, stopping that day in Asheville, N.C.; shifting to Atlanta on Thursday and making a final stop on Friday in Chicago. While his speeches are likely to focus mainly on jobs and the economy, he will also talk about gun violence in Chicago.

Rubio for the GOP, Paul adds Tea Party flavor

Bringing in a new face to counter some of Obama’s points, Republicans have asked Cuban-American U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. -- a likely contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination -- to give the official response.

Rubio’s rebuttal is likely to offer traditional Republican economic concepts to help revive the sluggish economy, and perhaps accuse Obama of aiming wrongly for a government-focused approach (which some critics call “trickle-down government”) to boost the economy.

Like Obama back in 2007, Rubio is an eloquent and ambitious U.S. senator from a minority group in an important state. He is the great political hope of some GOP analysts, and was hailed in a recent Time magazine cover as “the Republican Savior” – a title Rubio himself rejects.

Offering a separate response to Obama’s speech will be Tea Party favorite U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who will deliver a talk from Tea Party Express headquarters shortly after Rubio finishes his remarks. Not surprisingly, Paul is also considering a possible run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.