Anyone wondering whether President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday will focus more on policy or the politics of his re-election should consider the trip he has planned immediately afterward: visits to five battleground states in three days.
About 12 hours after delivering his speech to Congress at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Mr. Obama will depart on Air Force One for Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan — all key states he hopes to win in November. His aides say the president will use the swing states to promote policies to help the middle class, but the campaign strategy is obvious.
"The president is campaigning for re-election and it's hard to say that traveling to important electoral states is otherwise," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
In a video preview of his State of the Union speech emailed to 10 million supporters Saturday, Mr. Obama said he would call for "a return to American values of fairness for all and responsibility from all."
"We can go in two directions," the president said. "One is towards less opportunity and less fairness. Or we can fight for where I think we need to go: building an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few."
Mr. Obama is expected to call in his speech for raising taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations to pay for what he says is needed spending on infrastructure, education and other programs.
"If that's what the president is going to talk about Tuesday night, I think it's pathetic," House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday."
"It sounds to me like the same old policies that we've seen: more spending, higher taxes, more regulation — the same policies that haven't helped our economy; they've made it worse."
Whether Mr. Obama truly expects to work with a divided Congress in an election year is open to debate, especially given Mr. Obama's "We Can't Wait" campaign in recent months that has emphasized taking executive actions to work around Congress.
"Republicans in Congress have not been willing to work with him and he is now in unilateral mode," said George Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University who specializes in presidential studies. "He certainly needs Congress to do anything major, and nothing major is going to happen this year."
As if to underscore that, Mr. Boehner on Friday served notice that Republican leaders plan a sustained attack on the Obama administration's agenda. Mr. Boehner said he asked all House committee chairmen to review Mr. Obama's economic and jobs policies to counter "the devastating impact these policies have on our economy."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Mr. Obama still wants to work with lawmakers to approve the agenda he will lay out Tuesday night.
"Americans of all political persuasions are going to want their elected representatives here in Washington to work together, whether it's an even year or an odd year or a year in the presidential cycle," Mr. Carney said. "I think there are historic examples that actually contradict the assumption that you can't get anything done in a presidential election year — 1996 comes to mind."
In 1996, President Clinton delivered his election-year State of the Union address to a Republican Congress that voters had put into power in a midterm election as a check on Mr. Clinton.
It was in this speech that Mr. Clinton famously declared, "The era of big government is over." During the address, he added that it was time to "finish the job and balance the budget." He had to wait just one year to sign legislation requiring a balanced budget by 2002.
He also lived up to a groundbreaking goal, laid out in the speech, of passing bipartisan welfare reform.
But Mr. Clinton was known for using his State of the Union speeches to announce laundry lists of ideas and pet projects, and many of them never saw the light of day.
For example, he challenged businesses in 1996 to provide pensions for their employees, but in the decade afterward, more companies moved away from pensions and instead offered 401(k) investment plans.
Mr. Clinton also pledged to increase inspections to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants. Sixteen years later, immigration and border security are still major national issues and Washington has not found an effective way to prevent businesses from employing illegal immigrants.
The most recent president to give a State of the Union speech while seeking re-election was Republican George W. Bush in 2004. Mr. Bush focused much of his address on the war on terrorism, having launched Operation Iraqi Freedom 10 months earlier.
With his status as a wartime president, Mr. Bush asked Congress in his speech to renew the USA Patriot Act, the wide-ranging post-9/11 law that eased restrictions on surveillance and intelligence gathering by law enforcement and other agencies. Key provisions of the law were set to expire at the end of 2005, but after much debate and some extensions, Congress renewed most of the act in March 2006.
While defending his decision to topple the regime of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush also made a pitch to Congress that night in 2004 to pursue "a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East." He asked lawmakers to double funding for the National Endowment for Democracy to promote "free elections and free markets" in the Middle East.
"As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends," Mr. Bush said. "We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror and expect a higher standard from our friend."
Congress did authorize doubling the endowment's funding. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination this year, has criticized the agency as "nothing more than a costly program" to manipulate foreign elections.
Among the other items on Mr. Bush's agenda that year was a proposed "Jobs for the 21st Century" program, which called for $500 million in spending. Congress authorized the initiative, although it was funded in part by shifting money from other programs.
Mr. Bush also called on lawmakers to reform the nation's immigration laws, a call that he intensified after the 2006 midterm elections cost Republicans control of Congress. That effort at "comprehensive immigration reform," which dominated the 2007 political calendar, collapsed from the fragility of the left-right coalition the Bush administration tried to cobble together.
Former U.S. Comptroller General David A. Walker, CEO of the nonprofit Comeback America Initiative, noted that presidents "love" to begin State of the Union speeches with declarations that "The state of our union is strong."
"This year, that statement would be false," Mr. Walker said. "And it is more false now than ever before, because of our calamitous financial situation."
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