President Obama will use tonight's State of the Union address to issue a broad call for a common ground approach to get the nation's financial house in order.
Nearly three months after what he described as the "shellacking" suffered by his party in the midterm elections, the president will try to balance a call for job creation and deficit reduction. He will offer his vision to promote hiring with what officials describe as "targeted investments." He will frame it as a plan for "winning the future."
The White House is well aware that Republicans view those "investments" as more stimulus money. Melody Barnes, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council told CBS News, "We've got to invest in those areas where we know this will work and promote our economy and we've got to cut in those areas where we know things are not working." Barnes said spending and cuts must be balanced because "we don't want to end up in the same hole that we found ourselves in when we walked into office in January of 2009."
While Mr. Obama will leave specific cuts to the budget debate, he will say that everything should be on the table. The hot button Social Security issue is on that list. Barnes says Mr. Obama believes "we have to have that conversation." Officials indicate the president will call for overhauling the corporate tax code. He will also discuss education reform, one of the few areas where the White House hopes for agreement with Republicans.
The president previewed the overall tone of the speech in a weekend video message to his supporters. Discussing the economic challenges, Mr. Obama said, "We're up to it as long as we come together as a people - Republican, Democrats, independents - as long as we focus on what binds us together as a people, as long as we're willing to find common ground even as we're having some very vigorous debates."
Standing in the same House chamber where Republicans voted to repeal the health care reform law only last week, Mr. Obama will strongly defend his signature program. According to Barnes, the president is ready to say, "We can't fight battles of the past. We've got to move forward and make sure that health care is implemented in the most effective and efficient way." He will likely point to the stories of "real people" who have benefited from the new law.
The GOP response to the president's comments on an issue that has caused so much political rancor will be closely watched as Congress embarks on what amounts to a civility experiment. Many lawmakers have taken up the call to sit with colleagues from the opposite party. Republican Senator John McCain told CBS' "The Early Show," "We can be more civil but let's not lose our passion." Robert Lehrman, an American University adjunct professor and former chief speech writer for Vice President Al Gore expects a one-night symbolic display. Lehrman told CBS Radio News, "Having people sit together during this event is not meaningful. Families sit together at dinner. That doesn't mean you don't have a big fight about homework after dessert." A forced bipartisan seating arrangement will be on prominent display behind the president. Republican House Speaker John Boehner will be seated next to Democratic Vice President Joseph Biden.
Regardless of the seating arrangement on the House floor, the mood is expected to be more somber than in recent raucous years. The speech comes less than three weeks after the Tucson shooting tragedy that left Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords seriously wounded. The president will pay tribute to Giffords and elaborate on the Tucson speech where he commented on the national discourse.
The family of 9-year-old shooting victim Christina Taylor Green will be seated with First Lady Michelle Obama. Daniel Hernandez, the congressional staff intern who heroically came to Giffords' aid, will also be in the VIP gallery.
Mr. Obama is expected to briefly touch on foreign policy challenges including the changing U.S. military role in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The speech offers the president his best opportunity and biggest audience to set the stage for the second half of his term and for campaign 2012. As former President Bill Clinton wrote in his autobiography My Life, "It's the only time in a year when a president gets the chance to speak to the American people, unfiltered, for a whole hour."Peter Maer is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.