Facing a divided Congress and a dissatisfied nation, President Barack Obama will aim at getting the US economy and his own presidency back on track in his first State of the Union policy speech tonight.
Mr Obama’s address to Congress will be underpinned by two themes – reassuring millions of Americans that he understands their struggles and convincing people that he is working to change Washington even as he finds himself working within its old political ways.
The address has enormous stakes for Mr Obama. He rode a tide of voter frustration into office and now is getting its backlash.
Mr Obama will offer fresh details about how he wants to help businesses hire again and how he hopes to salvage an overhaul of the health care system. Yet for all of the new ideas he offers, the speech will be measured largely by how well he reconnects with the public.
The agenda will sound familiar. Mr Obama says he will not retreat from the big issues he campaigned on and tried to get done in his first year, when political momentum was strong. He will push for health care reform, regulation of Wall Street, energy and immigration reform, and a global fight against terrorists.
Mr Obama also will prod Congress to enact new jobs legislation, seek a freeze on some domestic spending for three years and try to blunt the impact of a Supreme Court decision that gives corporations much more freedom to influence elections through political advertising.
Meanwhile, his White House is still feeling the jolt of last week’s special Senate election in Massachusetts. When little-known Republican Scott Brown won the seat held for nearly a half-century by the late Democrat Edward Kennedy the result was widely viewed as a symbol of frustration with the economy and the government.
So Mr Obama will try to more sharply cast his messages to address people’s daily concerns. That starts with creating more jobs at a time of 10% unemployment but extends to the other topics he will address, including the government’s ongoing habit of spending more money than it has.
Then again, Mr Obama already has been trying to couch his initiatives in real-life terms.
In his first address to Congress 11 months ago, a speech too early in his tenure to be considered a State of the Union address, Mr Obama talked of people living with the economic anxiety of sleepless nights, bills they could not pay and jobs they lost.
“It’s an agenda that begins with jobs,” Mr Obama said that night in February. It still is, but in a much tougher political environment for him and his party.
Mr Obama remains a well-liked figure, polls show, but his overall approval rating and grades for handling issues like the economy have dropped significantly.
A new Gallup Poll finds that Mr Obama is the most politically polarising president in recent history, with 88% of Democrats approving of his job performance while just 23% of Republicans do. He has the twin political challenges of giving Democrats an agenda they can rally around ahead of congressional elections in November, yet showing emboldened Republicans and a sceptical public that he is serious about reversing Washington’s bitter partisanship.
Mr Obama, knowing the public worries about government bailouts and big-bank bonuses, also will position himself as a voice for working families. He has adopted the word “fight” to describe his stand against special interests.
Foreign affairs and terrorist threats will get plenty of attention, too. Mr Obama will give his assessment of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last few months have seen a shooting massacre at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas and an attempted terrorist attack on an airliner heading for Detroit.
The administration is coping with international nuclear stand-offs in North Korea and Iran and a Middle East peace process that remains as vexing as ever. Mr Obama is also expected to touch on post-earthquake life in Haiti, which has faded slightly from public attention but remains an epic humanitarian crisis.