State of the Union 2010

President Barack Obama's first State of the Union address: The president spoke to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 27, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Barack Obama will call for innovation, investments in education and infrastructure, deficit reduction and government reform during Tuesday’s State of the Union address as key elements of his roadmap for repairing the economy, according to White House advisers.

“When President Obama came into power he was facing an unprecedented economic crisis in his first two years,” said Ryan McConaghy, deputy director of economic programs of centrist think tank Third Way. “He was in effect a fireman and now the economy is stabilized, but still needs to do more healing. He can shift his responses to be navigator and leader.”

Obama will encourage civility and focus on the need for unity in his first speech to the newly elected Republican majority in the House. But fundamental disagreements over federal spending and the best ways to create new jobs will cause tension between the parties.

“The biggest source of contention will be whether the federal government can create jobs by spending more money. Republicans want to cut public spending by $100 billion and the president wants to expand it,” said Andrew Fieldhouse, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute.

In a four-minute YouTube video posted on the Organizing for America website on Saturday, the president set the tone for his speech. While admitting the job of fixing the economy was “not finished yet,” Obama said economic recovery can be hastened by “making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing, and we are creating jobs not just now but well into the future.”

Analysts expect that he will speak in broad strokes, avoiding  specifics.

“He can’t afford to be seen as neo-elitest policy monk,” Fieldhouse said. “The president is best when he doesn’t get into nitty-gritty policy his Tucson address tried to unite us and bring us to the better part of human nature.”

Obama will push for investments in education in order to remain competitive with rising markets like China.

“I think Obama has gotten credit for ‘His Race To The Top’ proposal,” McConaghy said. “He is going to go further on that in terms of instilling teacher accountability and really shake up the way the government has poured in K-12 education with more experimentation and focus on science, engineering, and math.”

The president will also propose initiatives in renewable energy. Obama will touch on cap-and-trade, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the need for clean energy.

There will also be partisan differences over health care reform.

“I think on the deficit issue you’ll see defensive healthcare reform,” Fieldhouse said. “There were supposed to be savings of $230 billion dollars and that was politically inconvenient for the Republicans.”

In his video, Obama said that he wants to “make sure that we continue to keep America safe and that we’re advancing our interests around the world.” He will commend efforts at global nuclear arms reduction while also highlighting the continuing withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

The address will set the stage for Obama’s upcoming re-election campaign. “This is the first speech of the new presidential cycle,” said Brian Darling, director of government relations for conservative Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “He is now in re-election mode.”

Following the address, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin will deliver the GOP response. Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann will also respond in a speech streamed on the Tea Party website. On Thursday, Obama will respond to YouTube and Twitter questions via a live YouTube stream.

– Reporting by Roshan Nebhrajani

Here’s a look at the specifics in several key areas, compiled by Medill News Service reporters who talked to government officials and independent experts to get a sense of what the president is likely to focus on.

On business

President and VP Biden

In the Cabinet Room, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and OMB Director Jack Lew met with Senate Democratic leaders about the lame duck session on Dec. 6, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The American economy has come to define Obama’s presidency. He’s likely to make it the centerpiece of his speech, experts agree.

With the unemployment rate currently at 9.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the government is expected to hit its $14.294 trillion statutory debt limit as early as March 31, the country will be listening to the president’s short-term plan for pushing down both unemployment and the debt.

What happens if Congress and the White House cannot agree on the debt limit? Government offices could be shut down, as they were in 1995 when Republicans, fresh from a mid-term election victory, used their power to halt all non-essential services after quarreling with President Bill Clinton on spending.

Payments on federal entitlement programs, such as Social Security or Medicare, might come to a stop. The Treasury Department has noted that this would be “catastrophic”.

Andrew Fieldhouse, of the Economic Policy Institute, said he expects Obama’s address on Tuesday will focus on bolstering job creation, increasing the nation’s global competitiveness, cutting taxes, and even the idea of reforming his own legislation.

In contrast to last year’s address, Obama will take a centrist view on these issues.

Unemployment may the be the focus of many Americans, but finding a solution for it means Congress must first come to an agreement on what has become a rallying cry by many Republicans for tax cuts. The White House said it needs to maintain government spending to spur job growth and, to do that, the debt limit rise.

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said, “Republicans are not going to vote for this increase in the debt limit unless there are serious spending cuts and reforms.”

Such GOP tax cuts do nothing for anyone outside the wealthiest one percent of the country, wrote Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., in an editorial to the Huffington Post Monday.  The top 1 percent of Americans control 34 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 90 percent control 29 percent, wrote Schakowsky. This disparity is resulting in a restructuring of the U.S. class system– sifting the wealthiest Americans out of the general public and a shocking disappearance of what is a ‘traditional’ middle class.

Whether or not Obama will address these problems depends on how much he decides to step out of the partisan neutral zone.

Recognizing that the Democrats have surrendered their House majority, the message Tuesday will be that ‘only together’ can Washington hope to make-up the more than six million jobs lost since the 2008 recession.

“[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,” said Obama in a video preview of the SOTU released this weekend.

December’s lame-duck session extension of Bush-era tax cuts until 2012 foreshadowed the moderate stance the administration will adopt in 2011. Notably, the postponement on the tax-cut debate has been pushed to 2012, when Obama will be in the heat of campaigning for reelection. Controversial points included the reset of rates for the estate tax at 35 percent and exemption of inherited wealth up to $10 million for couples, down from the 55 percent rate and $1 million exemption, which forced the Democrats to suspend floor debate to regroup before eventually commencing in a 227-148 vote.

Dissent will likely occur on the question of whether or not the government can create jobs by spending more money, said Fieldhouse. “Republicans will want to cut public spending by a 100 billion, and the Democrats are moving to increase spending,” said Fieldhouse.

Obama appointed GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt Friday as the head of his jobs and competitiveness council, signaling an outreach to business. In his new position, Immelt will act as strong corporate liaison in the White House, and his appointment will likely result in cutting corporate tax rates with the intention that the freed funds act as incentive for creating jobs in the U.S., not overseas.

Obama also spoke to working over the next several years to improve the state of the economy, implying that he will be in the White House not just in 2012, but later as well. “If we’re willing to work hard over the next several years, I’m absolutely confident that we can bequeath to the next generation… the incredible gift we received from…all those who came before us,” said Obama in the video.

– Reporting by Nina Lincoff and Elisa Santana

On health care

President Barack Obama's signature

President Barack Obama's signature on the health insurance reform bill at the White House, March 23, 2010. The President signed the bill with 22 different pens. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The president will defend the health care law he pushed through Congress last year, experts said, despite calls from Republicans to dismantle the landmark legislation.

The GOP-led House voted to repeal the law last week. The Senate, still controlled by Democrats, is extremely unlikely to follow suit. Obama has said he will veto the repeal if it comes to his desk.

With the economy as the speech’s centerpiece, Obama is expected to tout the health care law’s impact on job creation and debt reduction.

“He’ll talk about the competitive edge health care provides” said Saladin Ambar, a political science professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “It’s a matter of bringing the country up to date with other nations.”

Compromise will prove to be integral if Obama wants to preserve the reforms enacted in March 2010. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed the Senate would pass the repeal.

Ambar said the president will stray from political rhetoric in his speech.

“‘Denouce’ isn’t in Obama’s vocabulary,” Ambar said. “ There’s been some language by some members of Congress that this is not a total repeal effort but one where they’re trying to take away the bad parts of reform.”

Obama will review the “more popular” provisions of the law that appeal to both parties, Ambar said. These include insurance protection for patients with pre-existing conditions and coverage on a parent’s plan for people until they turn 26.

Robert Alexander, an associate professor of political science at Ohio Northern University, believes Congress and the public will welcome Obama’s health care plug.

Alexander called Obama “the Great Communicator” and said the president has always drawn public support for reform — as long as he’s the one communicating.

“When (Nancy) Pelosi and (Harry) Reid were the point people for health reform, that’s when you saw support go down,” Alexander said.

But some experts believe the president’s defense, even with a human face, will not be enough to sway public opinion.

“He’s going to have some sob stories, individuals who are now being helped by the law and say that [with the repeal] Republicans are going to throw them out on the street,” said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. “The reality is that [opinions on health care] are diametrically opposed and there’s no compromising.”

With the 2012 presidential election already in sight, experts said Obama may use a centrist view on health care to launch his reelection campaign.

“He sees the writing on the wall and realizes he’s gone too outside the mainstream with his policies, “ said Jordan Sekulow, a director of policy at the American Center for Law and Justice, the nonprofit public interest law firm founded by evangelical minister and media mogul Pat Robertson. “He can save a possible re-election by getting behind policies people actually believe in.”

Michael Franc, the vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, predicts that even with a more conciliatory tone, the president will not address the major objections to the law.

“He’ll open up the [law] to surgery and it could either be major surgery or cosmetic surgery,” said Franc, adding that he only expected a facelift. “They’ll only be willing to open up the law at the periphery, not the foundational issues.”

– Reporting by Alanna Autler and Elena Schneider

On national security

Obama in Afghanistan

The president greets U.S. soldiers at Bagram Airfield after an all-night, unannounced flight to Afghanistan on Dec. 3, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Raising public support for strategies implemented in Afghanistan is high on the president’s short list of probable national security topics.

“Usually these are occasions on which the president celebrates successes, whether they’re real or not, and lays our future challenges that must be met,” said L. Sue Hulett, professor of political science at Knox College.

The war in Afghanistan will be the focus of the president’s national security discussion in his address, according to published reports and several experts.

Obama is expected to announce his plan to begin gradually withdrawing U.S. troops from the country in July. However, the president will most likely add emphasis to the ultimate goal of fully transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014.

Iraq is also likely to receive at least a brief mention in the president’ s speech. According to wire reports, Obama will highlight the successful removal of U.S. troops from Iraq to date, as well as underscore his promise to have all military personnel removed by the end of the year.

However, considering the main focus of the address will be the U.S. job market, viewers should not be surprised if the president manages to establish a connection between economic stability and national security.

“Ironically I think the one area in foreign policy and national security where he might actually say something would have to do with trade, which is an issue the president doesn’t often discuss,” said James Carafano, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, which is based at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “With the theme of the speech being jobs, jobs, jobs, trade, export control reform…and free trade agreements, which are not just about trade, but also strong bilateral relations…might be things you hear about.”

All that said, the president is unlikely to spend much time discussing national security—last year he devoted a whopping nine minutes on the topic, and broad public consensus continues to push job creation ahead on his agenda.

Still, what he does not say may be just as telling about where his priorities are as what he does.

Carafano said one factor encouraging Obama to shy away from talking about the War on Terror is an effort to avoid sounding too close to the Bush administration.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney said on the Today show last week that Obama has realized as president that many of the more controversial policies associated with the war are necessary realities.

Cheney cited Obama’s failure to shut down Guantanamo Bay, the main site of the Bush administration’s contentious “enhanced interrogation methods.”

“I think he’s learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate,” Cheney said.

In an address in which analysts anticipate Obama trying to put a favorable spin on the now almost 10-year-old war, the last thing he will want to do is admit to any sort of retrenchment on his own original intentions for U.S. involvement that might also align him with his predecessor’s, Carafano said.

“What we’ve seen is, if you look in those areas, increasingly it looks kind of like the same policies that Bush had,” he said. “When you trumpet it, you’re kind of admitting the last guy had it right.”

He added that the president should do his best to avoid the matter all together for fear of getting caught in the middle of conflicting expectations from the left and the right.

“If you say ‘I’m going to do something different,’ then you raise expectations on the left, which you can’t really fulfill because then you look weak on combating terrorism,” Carafano said. “So just walk away from the whole thing.”

The greater takeaway from Obama’s silence on Afghanistan will be his administration’s gradual effort to reorient the country toward a final withdrawal date in 2014, first announced and agreed upon last November at a NATO summit in Lisbon.

For that to work, he cannot mention the July deadline he initially was bent on making, said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Several top military and defense officials have said whatever begins this summer will specifically be on a conditions basis.

“It seems Obama and the administration have realized that repeatedly emphasizing the July deadline was unhelpful to the overall strategy,” Curtis said.

– Reporting by Amanda Bossard and Peter Larson

On education

Obama and Duncan

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak to sixth grade students at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Va., Jan. 19, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The president will likely seek common ground with Republicans by targeting the flaws both parties see in the No Child Left Behind Act, education policy experts said.

Members of Congress must vote on reauthorizing the groundbreaking  2001 act this year. Liberals and conservatives both hope to replace the punitive measures the bill prescribes for schools that do not meet standards with a more flexible system, said Jim Gomes, director of Clark University’s Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise.

Current laws require districts to identify their worst-performing schools, as measured by student performance on standardized tests,  and choose from a set of intervention options such as closing the schools or replacing 50 percent of the staff. An “education blueprint” the Obama administration released last March called for rewarding successful innovation, and Obama will probably adhere to that blueprint in his speech, Gomes said.

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said he is optimistic the president’s goals will align with those of the 4,000-plus D.C. public school instructors his union represents.

“We’re hoping to hear less emphasis on testing, more emphasis on relationship-building between teachers and students,” Saunders said.

The bipartisan agreement is likely to break down over the president’s  call for increased investment in education, . A Jan. 20 proposal by the Republican Study Committee called for $2.5 trillion in cuts from the federal budget, including $1.3 billion in education cuts.

As Obama pushes for more investments, he may cite the mediocre performance of American students compared to students in other countries , said Grover Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy. In 2009, American students scored 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math among 15-year-olds  from 65 countries tested by the Programme for International Student Assessment

“How do we make sure that our kids are able to compete with workers anywhere in the world?… [W]e’re going to have to out-educate other countries,” Obama said in a State of the Union preview video.

Ronald Chennault, associate professor at Depaul University, said he expects Obama to emphasize improving  student performance in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, sometimes known as STEM.

Grant VanEaton, a ninth-grade biology teacher at Paul Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., said he would like to see a renewed emphasis on science and math. He said incoming students lack profiency in science and come in with different skill levels.

“If we are looking to be economically successful and viable in the future we have to focus on these STEM competencies, and not just at the high school level, but really starting in elementary and middle school as well,” he said.

Obama’s education agenda wins grudging support from some conservatives who question the need for any federal role in education.

Neal McCluskey, an education expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, said greater flexibility for schools would be “moving in the right direction to a small extent.”

“If this were an ideal world, [Obama] will begin the process of getting the federal government out of education,” McCluskey said. “It has no constitutional authority to be there.”

But other policies Obama has promoted, such as increasing funding for community colleges, worry McCluskey. Such measures would be both expensive and ineffective, McCluskey said.

– Reporting by Allyson Byers and Rebecca Cohen

On the environment


Obama, with Professor Vladimir Bulovic, tours an alternative energy research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Oct. 23, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The president is also expected to call for investing in emerging technologies such as electrification of vehicles in order to create green jobs and spur economic growth.

“Well, I’m sure we’ll hear the words green jobs, probably more than once, and we’ll hear lots of language alluding to his desire to subsidize certain industries,” said Patrick J. Michaels, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the libertarian CATO Institute.

As far as the newly divided Congress’ effect on environmental policy, scholars don’t think the Democrats will back down from clean energy regulation and reform.

“I don’t think we’re going to back off at all … The administration is committed to strong policy in this area and just because the legislature won’t do it does not mean that the executive branch can’t,” Michaels said.

Three words that almost certainly will not be heard Tuesday evening are cap and trade, the market-based approach to reducing pollution by offering economic incentives to companies that reduce emissions.

“It was a huge loser for them politically and I don’t think he’ll ever mention that phrase again,” said Hayward on cap and trade

Environmentalists would like a federal “clean energy standard,” said Kenneth P. Green, another resident scholar at AEI. “’Clean energy polls well, and climate change, greenhouse gasses and cap and trade poll poorly, so that’s where I expect them to focus.”

Obama might even show his support of the EPA’s regulations and reaffirm their authority in his address Tuesday.

“He might, as I know environmentalists are hoping for, say that he will resist any attempts by Republicans to role back EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act,” said Hayward.

Some are urging increased reliance on America’s natural gas resources.

“I expect he might say that we ought to be deploying our natural gas resources more aggressively,” said Steven Hayward, resident scholar the American Enterprise Institute. the nonpartisan conservative think tank.

– Reporting by Lauren Schwartzberg