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Obama's message likely to be modest on legislation
Obama speech likely to scale back lofty ambition, focus on what he can do without Congress
By STEVEN R. HURST
Associated Press
2014-01-28 09:01 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday will likely jettison the bold legislative agenda he laid out a year ago and focus on what he can get done through his own executive powers, sidestepping the divided Congress.

Beyond that, the president will try to deal a winning hand for fellow Democrats seeking re-election in November, an effort complicated by his falling popularity.

In the sixth year of his presidency, public opinion polls put Obama's approval ratings in the low 40s, dramatically down from a year ago. He's taken a big hit over the dismal startup of his banner health care overhaul, known to opponents as Obamacare. The economy is in far better shape than it was when Obama took office in 2009, but unemployment remains high. The president has been unable to get any help from Congress on his big visions for narrowing the country's acute income inequality. The wealthy have recovered since the 2008 fiscal crisis. Middle income and poor Americans still struggle.

Obama will be trying to set a tone that acknowledges the deep partisan divisions in the country while emphasizing an economic argument that his party hopes will help carry it to victory in November. He will push hard for economic fairness and expanded opportunity, principles Democrats believe will resonate with voters nationwide. But with his political coattails growing shorter, Obama may not be much help to Democrats who will be struggling to hold their Senate majority. Odds on the Democrats regaining control of the House from Republicans are slim.

Obama will be trying to set out a stark choice: An America where all segments of the population have opportunities to better themselves versus one where prosperity is disproportionately enjoyed by a select few. In the run-up to the State of the Union, Obama has persistently sought to focus the nation's attention on trends of inequality and lower social mobility that he's pledging to address in his final years in office. He will lay out plans for executive action he can take without Congress, including job training, retirement security and help for the long-term unemployed in finding work.

"Tomorrow night, it's time to restore opportunity for all," Obama said Monday on the video-sharing site Vine, part of the White House's broad social media promotion of the speech.

The address, delivered before a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching on television and the Internet, typically garners a president his largest audience of the year. It also provides perhaps his best opportunity to try to persuade skeptical Americans that he still wields substantial power in Washington.

The dose of realism is aimed at avoiding a repeat of 2013, when a long list of unfulfilled policy goals -- including gun control and an immigration overhaul -- dragged Obama down like an anchor.

The president hopes he can rally Democrats behind an uplifting theme with broad appeal. In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month, 68 percent of those queried said they would like the federal government expend a moderate or great amount of effort reducing the gap between rich and poor. By comparison, less than half wanted the government to focus on advancing gay rights or fighting climate change.

Republicans have been dismissive of the president's go-it-alone approach.

Sen. Roy Blunt suggested that some executive actions might run up against legal challenges, saying Congress should insist Obama "find the Constitution and follow it."

Republicans also hope the renewed focus on the economy will offer an opportunity to showcase how Democratic ideas have failed to cure the very ills Obama laments. Despite their own terrible poll numbers, Republicans hold a considerable edge in public trust in their ability to handle the economy.

Finding a theme with cross-party appeal is critical this year for the Democrats, who are defending 21 of 35 Senate seats. Preserving that fragile majority is crucial to any hopes of moving Obama's agenda through Congress.

Many Democrats are up for re-election in conservative-leaning Southern states. Democrats like Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mark Begich in Alaska have sought distance from the president, who is unlikely to campaign in their states. But Obama can focus the public's attention on what Democrats want to do to fight unemployment, improve education and boost wages -- issues that resonate deeply in those same states.

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