Obama speech marks new path to 2012 election

The President has had a bump in the polls, with approval rates above 50 per cent

The retooled President Barack Obama will come fully into view as he undertakes the annual ritual of delivering the State of the Union address to Congress tomorrow. No more the stubborn champion of change and legislative reform; make way for the shepherd of national unity and cross-party conciliation.

It will be a pivot to the political centre that has largely been forced upon him, not least by the loss of control of the lower house to the Republicans in November. And with the clock ticking down on his own re-election effort, Mr Obama knows that voters want progress, especially on jobs, not ideological jousting.

"My number one focus," Mr Obama said in a video message about the address sent over the weekend to supporters, "is going to be making sure that we are competitive, and we are creating jobs not just now but well into the future." The theme of his speech, he said, would be "winning the future".

Even the stagecraft of tomorrow night will give Mr Obama and his message of co-operation an extra lift. Instead of following tradition and sitting in two party blocks facing each other across the chamber, Democrats and Republicans are being encouraged to mingle. It's a symbolic gesture for one night only but one that may prove a powerful one with a large part of the country tuning in to watch.

Not that the hallways of Congress will smell of primroses for long. Even yesterday, Republican leaders were pointing to what could turn out to be the most serious pothole in front of the White House – the need to persuade Congress to raise America's debt limit, which, at $14.3 trillion, is likely to be breached this spring, perhaps even at the end of March.

While the administration has warned that failing to increase the limit could be "catastrophic" for the US and cause it to default on debt payments, Republicans are looking to use the issue to force through their agenda of deep spending cuts that many of them promised to deliver in last year's midterm elections.

"Republicans are not going to vote for this increase in the debt limit unless there are serious spending cuts and reforms," the number two Republican in the House, Eric Cantor, said on NBC yesterday. "That is just the way it is. We know there are hundreds of programmes that are going to need to be cut."

Extremely delicate bridges must be crossed, however, before either side can agree on spending cuts that will be even slightly meaningful. While Republicans talk of courageous action to cut the deficit, they know that will mean slicing into sacred cows including the budgets for defence and social security.

But with the national focus squarely on him this week, Mr Obama will be making the short journey up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill with an unexpectedly favourable wind behind him. His approval rating has notched back up to 50 per cent in several recent polls, a shift that is attributed variously to his handling of the Tucson shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the progress made at the end of last year on several fronts, including gays in the military, and improving economic sentiment.

"He has probably had the best 45 days of his presidency," said Matthew Dowd, a Republican consultant. "He has the power of the pulpit again."

Almost assuredly, however, Mr Obama is reaping political benefit from the perception that has already taken hold that he is moving to the centre. He has simultaneously signalled a more pro-business stance, for example hiring Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, to head a new competitiveness council in the White House.

As George Will, a conservative commentator, pointed out, the fruit for Mr Obama is visible in the polling results, including those saying that 10 per cent fewer Americans see him as a "big-government liberal" today than just two months ago. "That's astonishing, frankly," Mr Will conceded on ABC TV.

"Big challenges lie ahead," Mr Obama said in the video to members of Organizing for America, a grassroots group that helped fuel his 2008 campaign. "But we're up to it, as long as we come together as a people – Republicans, 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."

Speeches with a national audience can give at least a temporary boost to American leaders. It happened when Mr Obama spoke at the memorial service in Tucson two weeks ago in honour of Ms Giffords and the victims of the shooting who died.

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