Obama's State of the Union Target: The Middle Class

Updated 9:20 a.m. ET

President Obama will face a tough crowd on Capitol Hill and nationwide as he delivers his State of the Union Address.

Following the cheering and glad-handing from members of Congress as he enters the House chamber, Mr. Obama will speak to a room full of lawmakers including many who are anxious about their own re-election prospects. The voter angst reflected in the recent Massachusetts Senate election outcome set off alarm bells for incumbents in both parties.

Mr. Obama is well-aware that the broadcast audience will include many frustrated voters. He will use every opportunity to acknowledge what Press Secretary Robert Gibbs described as "a greater anger and frustration in the American public about the direction of our economy."

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(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
In fact Gibbs told CBS News the economy and job creation will dominate the speech. The past few days have seen Mr. Obama pivot from an emphasis on health care reform to a razor sharp focus on jobs and the concerns of the middle class.

Health reform will merit a mention tonight but it clearly has been eclipsed by economic concerns. Mr. Obama will insist efforts to win passage of health care reform are not dead.

But Gibbs admitted he knew of no new deadline for action on what has been the president's top domestic priority. The Senate election in Massachusetts that led to the loss of a Democratic "super majority" in the upper chamber dramatically altered the prospects for reform. Asked about a way forward on the complex issue Gibbs would only say, "The president has continued to talk to leaders in congress about the best path forward."

The president will call for tax breaks for small businesses that create jobs and invest in more equipment. In a highly symbolic move, the he will announce he is freezing the salaries of his own senior White House aides.

In the radio interview with CBS News, Gibbs said, "The government has to tighten its belt just as families all across the country are making the same decisions about tightening their belts."

A day after the Senate rejected establishing a commission on the federal deficit, the president will announce he'll name a panel to review the issue. He will use his speech to elaborate on modest initiatives for the middle class including proposals to double the child care tax credit and an effort to cap student loan payments.

George Mason University Communication Professor Stephen Farnsworth notes, "Elections are won and lost in the United States on the middle class." Farnsworth says any successful president must make "a middle class appeal."

The White House has also set the stage for the president to announce a budget freeze on some domestic programs. State of the Union followers should monitor the congressional response to that idea. Many lawmakers, especially those up for re-election are likely reluctant to sign on to cutting some of their favorite programs.

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Mr. Obama will also discuss the list of mandatory State of the Union issues including foreign policy and efforts to combat terrorism. Like many of his predecessors, Mr. Obama will call for "changing the way Washington works."

Farnsworth, the presidential communications expert, said proposing that type of reform is "sort of the stations of the cross that presidents go through as they try to put together a legislative package."

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Officials also indicate the president will extend an olive branch to Republicans. But Farnsworth said, "I don't know that Obama, particularly with approval ratings in the 50 percent range, is going to really convince Republicans that it is worth it for them to see the world as he does."

The author of "Spinner In Chief," a book about presidential messaging, told CBS News, "The Republican Party has come to the conclusion in Congress that the best way to deal with the Obama presidency is to pretend that Obama really isn't president—never try compromise."

Farnsworth noted, "The very deep-seated partisanship has created a situation that really approaches gridlock in this country."

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Peter Maer is a CBS Radio News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
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    Peter Maer is a CBS News White House Correspondent.