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Obama to offer big freeze on spending

President tries to convince Americans that he's on top of $1.3 trillion deficit

Confronted by an array of political perils, President Barack Obama will use the State of the Union address tonight to vow to stand by his principle domestic priorities, including healthcare reform, while at the same time taking more drastic steps to rein in government spending.

The President will notably call for a three-year freeze on discretionary spending in next year's federal budget, targeting domestic programmes in education and science and various social services. Areas which will not see such restraint will include defence and military spending as well as social security and Medicare.

The White House is reacting in part to the loss of the late Edward Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown last week. The weakening of support for Mr Obama may stem in part from a perception – skillfully nourished by conservatives – that he is presiding over a government-gone-wild in Washington with ever-ballooning deficits and a national debt which is increasingly expensive to service.

There was a smidgen of encouraging news yesterday from the Congressional Budget Office, which predicted the budget deficit will come in at $1.3tn in the current fiscal year, down slightly from $1.4tn posted last year.

Perhaps more surprising was fresh consumer confidence data yesterday indicating that Americans feel more optimistic about the economy now than they have for nearly a year and a half.

The huge deficits nonetheless continue to pose a significant political problem for Mr Obama. The Massachusetts debacle brought into sharp focus the backlash which has developed against some of what his administration has already wrought in its first year, including the $787bn stimulus programme and the bank bailout.

The proposed freeze is in some ways symbolic, affecting about 8 per cent of the federal budget and likely in the end to save the government only about $250bn. If it succeeds in quelling some criticism of the administration from conservatives, it is likely at the same time to infuriate liberal Democrats who already feel abandoned by Mr Obama.

In a sign of disunity within the Democratic camp, the progressive advocacy group moveon.org yesterday placed a full-page advertisement in USAToday warning the President and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill against any drift to the centre, under the headline, "Fight, Don't Fold".

Not for the first time, Mr Obama faces a task that some are billing as make-or-break for him politically. In the past, he has risen to the occasion, for example when he delivered his speech at West Point on the troop surge in Afghanistan or on the night he summoned Congress to a joint session to hear his pitch on healthcare.

But now things are stickier. Because the party has lost its filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority in the US Senate, the prospects for healthcare reform have dimmed dramatically and no one seems certain how best to try to salvage it.

Mutterings are being heard around Washington, meanwhile, that it might be time for some high-profile firings in the Obama circle, perhaps of Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner or economics advisor, Larry Summers.

But more generally, members of his own party, many of whom are now fretting about their re-election prospects in November, will be looking for some kind of coherent narrative from the President for the months ahead. While the message of Republicans – reject all things Obama – is as clear as crystal, the President's thread is harder to find.

Rather, there are some contradictions in the White House stance. Even as Mr Obama presents himself as a deficit disciplinarian, he will not back away from priorities which he thinks will pay off politically in the long-run. They include plans for a $150bn jobs creation bill.

The promise of a partial spending freeze did not immediately impress congressional Republicans. "Given Washington Democrats' unprecedented spending binge, this is like announcing you're going on a diet after winning a pie-eating contest," remarked Michael Steel, spokesman for the House minority leader, John Boehner.

'I'd rather be a good one-term President'

This President is not about to give up on the things America elected him for – even it means giving up on re-election in 2012. So said a surprisingly defiant Barack Obama in an interview with ABC News. "I'd rather be a really good one-term President than a mediocre two-term President," he declared, adding: "You know, there is a tendency in Washington to believe our job description, of elected officials, is to get re-elected. That's not our job description. Our job description is to solve problems and to help people."

And like George Bush before him and countless other previous residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he affected nonchalance about recent polls that have seen his job approval rating dip to 50 per cent and below. "I went through this in the campaign," he said. "When your poll numbers drop, you are an idiot. When your poll numbers are high, you are a genius. If my poll numbers are low, then I am cool and cerebral and cold and detached. If my poll numbers are high, 'Boy he's calm and reasoned all right'."

What's the point of the State of the Union speech?

Q. Have Americans always had one?

A. No. Article 2, Section 3 of the US Constitution provides merely that the President "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union". Most 19th-century presidents sent a written message, read out by a clerk. Woodrow Wilson was the first to deliver his in person, in 1913. It wasn't until 1947 that Harry Truman formally called it the State of the Union Address. Only in 1965 did it become a prime-time event, when Lyndon Johnson moved the time from noon to evening. It now traditionally occurs in the final week of January each year.

Q. Is it the American equivalent of the Queen's Speech in Britain?

A. Up to a point. The State of the Union was originally conceived as a republican version of the Speech from the Throne. But there are important differences. In the UK, the monarch is head of state, but not head of government. She merely reads out a list of legislative proposals drawn up by the Government, whose majority in the House of Commons will turn them into law. A US president is both head of state and government. But in a system where executive and legislative branches are separate and co-equal, a president's writ is not law – even when, as now, the same party controls both.

Q. Is it as theatrical as the State Opening of Parliament?

A. The costumes aren't as quaint, but in its way the State of the Union's choreography is no less elaborate. Both addresses are delivered to joint sessions, of the Lords and the Commons in Britain, of the Senate and the House of Representatives in the US, joined by members of the Supreme Court (the third, judicial, branch of government) and top military brass. But whereas the Queen's Speech is heard in decorous quiet, the President's hour-long speech is constantly interrupted by applause, from his own side or – rarer in this partisan age – from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Q. What purpose does it serve?

A. The State of the Union is a rite of American democracy in the media age. Theoretically, it is an annual report by the chief executive on the previous year's performance of USA Inc, (which is why this, technically, is President Obama's first State of the Union, although he gave a similar address to Congress last year, soon after taking office), and on the prospects for the year ahead. In practice, what matters is the sense of direction a president conveys and the priorities he outlines. A State of the Union rarely produces memorable phrases (President George Bush's 2002 denunciation of the "axis of evil" being the big recent exception).

Q. Would it make any difference if it were scrapped?

A. Not if you believe Peter Robinson, a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan (and author of Reagan's supremely memorable "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall" line in Berlin in 1987). According to Mr Robinson, the State of the Union is "one of the central mysteries of modern American life. The President doesn't want to give it, Congress doesn't want to listen to it, and the networks don't want to cover it, and every year the damn thing happens all the same."

Rupert Cornwell