state of the union address

Obama signaling campaign themes tonight

Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press
The White House said President Obama will not draw direct contrasts to any of the Republican candidates in his speech.

WASHINGTON - His Republican opponents got their chance last night. Now it is President Obama’s turn.

Tonight’s State of the Union address gives the president a chance to steal the spotlight from the fractious Republicans and turn it toward his rallying call for economic and tax fairness. In doing so, Obama will seek to project his vision for government’s role in incubating a new prosperity for future generations.

The speech will also cement his reelection platform. Echoing themes he has aggressively pitched in campaign-style stops since late summer, Obama is expected to call on the wealthy to pay more in taxes - or at least match the effective rates that many middle-class Americans pay - in order to help get the country working again and rescue the middle class.

“It’s going to be a fighting speech,’’ said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian and Boston University professor emeritus of history. “He’s going to lay out a contrasting agenda to what the Republicans, particularly Mitt Romney, has been saying about the use of federal power and the way the government approaches the economic difficulties that the country continues to face.’’

The White House would not disclose specific policy details Obama is expected to propose in the speech, which will be delivered at 9 p.m. to a joint session of Congress, Cabinet members, and Supreme Court justices as well as a nationally televised audience.

But senior administration officials said yesterday he would outline four key themes: improving manufacturing to generate greater innovation and productivity, a new energy strategy that would create jobs and lower the costs for families and businesses, reforming the way American students and workers are educated and trained, and encouraging the basic values of fairness and calling on everyone to take responsibility.

The president will draw heavily from the economic speech he delivered last month in Osawatomie, Kan., when he called the times a “make-or-break moment for the middle class.’’

In the speech, he extolled the positive role government can play in ensuring every American gets a fair shot at success and does her or his part.

He cited President Theodore Roosevelt, praising him as a Republican who broke up monopolies and prohibited businesses from profiting by exploiting children and selling unsafe food.

Roosevelt, he said, understood that the “free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can.’’

Acknowledging that Obama must continue to work with a divided Congress, his spokesman, Jay Carney, said yesterday that despite this being an election year, Obama intends to call for action and “get things done that matter to the American people.’’

In an indication the president is in full campaign mode, he will follow the speech with stops in five swing states, and his campaign team is in the process of airing its first ads to contrast him with the Republican candidates.

The events are part of an overarching effort to boost the standing of the president 10 months before voters determine whether he deserves another four years.

According to Gallup’s most recent poll, 46 percent of Americans disapprove of how he is doing on the job, and 44 percent approve.

The five-state swing also extends a heavy travel schedule for the president that followed the summer showdown over the debt limit.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party and his campaign team in Chicago have ridiculed Republican candidates, particularly Romney, declaring them out of touch with the needs of everyday Americans.

Obama has also raised prodigious amounts of cash for his reelection, the latest from a whirlwind of events in New York City this weekend that included a $35,800-a-head event at the home of director Spike Lee.

“This is going to be a close, competitive race and campaigning is full time,’’ said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “If we had nirvana and the economy were chugging along, he could conduct a Rose Garden campaign, coming out to make pleasant statements. But he doesn’t have that luxury.’’

For the president, tonight’s speech will be a balancing act. Presidential historians and analysts say he will need to contrast himself implicitly from the Republican field and respond to the harsh attacks without naming names or delving into partisan politics.

“You lose your advantage as president if you lower yourself into the partisan thicket,’’ Sabato said. “He needs to get up and give people hope.’’

Obama will probably focus much of the speech on the middle class - votes he needs to get reelected - and strengthening the economy - an area 86 percent of the public say should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year, according to a Pew Research Center survey on policy priorities released yesterday.

Other top priorities include reducing the budget deficit, making Social Security and Medicare financially sound, and making the tax system more fair.

“It’s his kickoff in trying to define this election in ways that are most favorable to him,’’ said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and media consultant. “The beauty of this is we have Republicans calling each other every name under the sun so it’s a great contrast for Obama. This is a terrific opportunity for him to look above all that and talk about what people really care about, which is the economy and jobs.’’

White House officials downplayed the president’s use of the speech as a campaign platform and said he will not be drawing direct contrasts to any of the Republican candidates.

“There will be plenty of opportunity for us later this year to engage in a robust debate with the Republicans,’’ said a senior White House official, “but tomorrow he will be focused on his own vision.’’

Analysts also expect Obama to tout his accomplishments, primarily in the area of foreign affairs with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the ending of the Iraq war, and the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“That’s his crispest area of progress,’’ said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University history professor. “But strengthening the middle class, diminishing inequality, and revitalizing the economy: those are the things he wants to focus in on and that will set him up for the fall campaign.’’

Mitch Daniels, darling of fiscal conservatives and governor of the usually GOP state of Indiana, which Obama won in 2008, will deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union.

The Republican presidential candidates have repeatedly criticized Obama’s three years in office as a failed presidency. Romney, in debates and on the stump, has accused him of creating an “entitlement society.’’ Newt Gingrich has labeled him the “food stamp president.’’

For Obama, the speech is his best opportunity yet to wrest attention back from a very volatile and engaging GOP primary season.

“The president understands that this Republican nomination contest has shifted the focus away from him and the White House, so this is an attempt to turn the attention back to what Obama and the Democrats will be doing if they get another term,’’ Dallek said. “This is his forum. He’s got center stage.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at