Ahead of Barack Obama’s first State of the Union, much remains undone at the White House

Jon Ward Contributor
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Forget the union. This speech is about the state of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Obama’s first official State of the Union speech was supposed to be a victory lap celebrating the passage of health-care reform that sparked a resurgence for the president and his party, after months of falling poll numbers.

Now, low poll numbers seem like an easy challenge compared to the political climate created by the Democratic loss in Massachusetts.

Instead of touting the health-care bill that was thought to be an inevitability for much of the past year, the president will try to rally some support for whatever leftovers of a bill he thinks is possible.

It’s unclear what remains achievable. Barring last-minute developments, much of Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday will, as one White House official told the Daily Caller, seek to turn the page to what else he aims to accomplish this year.

That is in many ways a thin gruel.

Obama will talk about jobs, and what he’s done so far for the economy, without which things would be even worse. But the unemployment rate won’t be going down any time soon, and most Americans want to hear about how things are getting better, not less bad.

There will be some talk of education reform, where the administration is making progress. There will be requisite nods to climate change legislation and immigration reform, but neither is expected to be a legislative priority this year.

So Obama will continue to use populist rhetoric to position himself as sympathetic to grassroots anger, and on the side of every day Americans in a fight against Wall Street interests and big banks.

Obama will tout his bank fee, which seeks to gather $90 billion over 10 years from the largest financial institutions that received money from the 2008 bailout. He’ll talk about his proposal to limit institutions from combining banking and high-risk investing. And he’ll promote his idea for a consumer protection agency.

David Axelrod, one of Obama’s top political advisers, was on message Sunday, previewing the president’s talking points.

“This president’s never going to stop fighting to create jobs, to raise incomes and to push back on the special interests’ dominance in Washington and this withering partisanship that keeps us from solving problems,” Axelrod said on ABC’s “This Week.”

As for the budget deficit, projected to hit roughly $1.6 trillion this year, Obama will say he supports the creation of a bipartisan commission to suggest solutions. But the kind of commission that the White House wants is too weak for many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who say such a panel needs to be able to deliver more binding recommendations.

Lastly, the White House has been attacking Republicans for months now as obstructionist. That is still part of the administration’s strategy.

“What we learned from the Massachusetts victory is that people are sick and tired of Washington not delivering for them. And so the question is really, will the Republican Party … be willing to come and work with us?” said senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

If the speech stops the bleeding of political momentum and support away from Obama, it could become a defining moment of his presidency.

But on Wednesday, Obama will enter a House chamber Wednesday full of Democratic lawmakers who no longer fear him, his aura or his political operation as much as they now fear the electorate. After Massachusetts, they know that almost all of them are vulnerable come November.