STATE OF UNION ADDRESS TO AIM AT JOLTING NATION OUT OF DEEP RECESSION

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President Barack Obama takes a question
at the Fiscal Responsibility Summit
at the White House in Washington
February 23, 2009

BY MATT SPETALNICK

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama takes center stage on Tuesday to try to explain to the American people on his broad agenda for jolting the United States out of deep recession and confronting long-term economic challenges.

Riding high in opinion polls, Obama will deliver a State of the Union-style televised address at 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT on Wednesday) in his first appearance before a joint session of Congress since he took office five weeks ago.

The prime-time speech comes in a pivotal week for Obama. He will roll out his first budget proposal on Thursday against a backdrop of growing public anxiety over the worst financial crisis in decades.

Though his public support is high, Wall Street has given a vote of no confidence to Obama’s initial proposals to heal the economy, slumping to a 12-year low on Monday over fears the government would nationalize ailing banks.

U.S. stocks recovered a bit on Tuesday, opening a little higher as investors looked for bargains.

The speech, in which he will lay out what he is doing and what he plans to do to halt the economic and financial crises, is sure to be his most closely watched performance since his January 20 inauguration as America’s 44th president.

“It won’t be enough just to look presidential,” said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “What he needs to be is explainer-in-chief.”

STILL ON HONEYMOON

Seeking to build momentum, the Democratic president hosted a bipartisan summit on “fiscal responsibility” on Monday, pledging to halve the $1 trillion-plus federal deficit he inherited by the end of his term in 2013.

He is expected to hammer home that theme on Tuesday while also laying out a list of domestic priorities, ranging from overhauling healthcare to bolstering support for alternative energy — promises he made during the presidential campaign.

The administration appears to be laying the groundwork for a major push on healthcare reform in the coming weeks. Obama’s budget director, Peter Orszag, said on Monday reducing healthcare costs was critical to fiscal reform and Obama announced a health care summit would take place next week.

The president’s effort to act fast on healthcare has been held up by the withdrawal of his nominee to head the initiative, former Senator Tom Daschle, over problems with his income tax payments. Obama has yet to announce a new nominee.

In his speech the president is also likely to touch on foreign affairs as he keeps up efforts to roll back Republican President George W. Bush’s most divisive policies and repair America’s image abroad.

He is expected to stress the shift in U.S. military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, underscored by a troop buildup he has ordered to help counter a Taliban resurgence.

Obama could also reassert his offer of direct diplomacy with U.S. foe Iran, a reversal of Bush’s policy of isolating Tehran over its nuclear ambitions.

The speech comes at a time when Obama’s presidential honeymoon is still going strong, despite Cabinet missteps that have strained his “no-drama Obama” image and criticism about a lack of specifics in some of his early financial initiatives.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll gave him a job approval rating of 63 percent, about 10 points higher than either Bush or former President Bill Clinton at this stage. A Washington Post-ABC News poll had 68 percent of Americans approving of Obama’s job performance.

There was also strong support for the $787 billion economic stimulus package he pushed through the Democratic-controlled Congress this month despite heavy Republican opposition.

With the speech to Congress providing Obama with his most direct channel to the American people since his inaugural address, he will also take care to set the right tone.

Since taking office, he has largely ditched his campaign talk of “yes, we can” for a more sober message of bleak economic times and an outlook for even worse to come.

Reflecting misgivings among some Democrats about Obama’s gloomy language, Clinton urged him last week to show more of the hope he promised as a candidate. Obama has insisted he is just painting a realistic picture.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a rising star in the Republican party and potential presidential candidate in 2012, will present his party’s response to Obama’s speech.

Jeff Mason contributed to this report.

See Related: ECONOMIC CRISIS

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