Obama's challenge: 'Feel the pain' of middle class in annual address

President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address on Wednesday represents a chance for him to reconnect with middle-class voters souring on his presidency.

A week after voters in Massachusetts signaled their disapproval with healthcare reform, the cornerstone of Obama’s legislative agenda, the president will have a chance to use his rhetorical gifts to both change the tone and show he gets it.

ADVERTISEMENT
“It should be a Clinton ‘I feel your pain moment,’” said Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker, a close follower of the presidency.

Obama’s tone should be “one of humility and even a candid acknowledgment that he was not sufficiently attentive to the American people.”

The prime-time address comes amid troubling poll numbers for the president. Gallup polls over the weekend showed Obama’s approval rating even with his disapproval rating at 47 percent.

Separately, a poll by The Washington Post showed 65 percent of Massachusetts voters supporting Republican Scott Brown in last week’s Senate election did so out of disapproval with the Democratic agenda in Congress. Democrats are bracing for significant losses in this year’s midterm elections.

White House advisers on Sunday made it clear that Obama’s address will focus on the economy and jobs. They also made clear that Obama will try to emphasize issues of concern to middle-class voters.

Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said Obama would focus on the middle class, while David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, said Obama will share his ideas about additional steps the administration will take to create and stir hiring around the country.

“The president has always gotten the message, and the message is, we need to grow this economy in a way that allows hard-working people who are meeting their responsibilities to get ahead instead of falling behind,” Axelrod said Sunday on CNN. “We need to create jobs with that possibility.”

Lawmakers want the president to focus on jobs in the speech. Some believe their leaders and the White House put far too much emphasis on healthcare reform even as the economy continued to lose jobs.

In an interview, Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) said 50 percent of Obama’s address should be dedicated to the economy and jobs. By stabilizing the economy, Kanjorski believes Democrats can move on to other issues voters care about, including rising deficits of concern to voters.

“If we stabilize the economy, we can get to some of the other things,” he said. “We can’t do deficit and the debt without stabilizing the economy.”

Obama has taken an increasingly more populist tone with his rhetoric since the beginning of the year, starting with a broadside against the financial industry two weeks ago in which he announced his proposal for a new fee on banks. On Thursday, he proposed limits on the size of large banks, as well as rules to prohibit them from proprietary trading or from owning hedge funds or private equity groups.

Jarrett and Axelrod dismissed suggestions Sunday that there had been a rhetorical shift by the president. Both insisted the president has been saying similar things with a similar tone since his campaign.

But others detect a difference, and Jason Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio, said the aggressive tone is something Obama should carry through the State of the Union.

“I think he’s going to voice more of the populist rhetoric,” Johnson said. After taking a beating, he said Obama needs “to get angry and aggressive.”

“He’s got to convince the American people that [jobs are] his No. 1 focus,” Johnson said.

Axelrod on Sunday also suggested the president will try to show he understands the public wants Republicans and Democrats to work together to solve the nation’s problems. At the same time, Axelrod repeated administration talking points about how Obama inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression from President George W. Bush, as well as a “dysfunctional system” in Washington.

“He is not daunted by that,” Axelrod said. “And he is going to stick to it, because there is too much at stake to be daunted by these obstacles.”

The stakes are clearly high for Obama. But the State of the Union represents an opportunity for a president who has used rhetoric, perhaps his greatest political gift, to rebound from political setbacks.

After his former preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, started a firestorm with controversial remarks about race, Obama’s run for the Democratic nomination was in trouble. He responded with a memorable speech on race.

State of the Union addresses tend to be dreary recitations of legislative proposals, Baker noted. That won’t be good enough for Obama.

“I think that Obama needs to turn this occasion into one of those times, such as the Independence Hall speech replying to Jeremiah Wright or the Nobel acceptance speech, in which his eloquence is so persuasive,” Baker said.


More in News

Judge rejects challenge to Obama's executive action on immigration

Read more »