Hill Blues: From Low Point, Obama Seeks to Rally Congressional Troops

By Rick Klein:

There will be applause. Check the smiles, though, for gritted teeth.

It’s all well and good to say the real audience for a State of the Union address sits far beyond the House chamber. But that doesn’t have to be true Wednesday night for this speech to be interesting.

The state of the Democrats’ union, it turns out, is not all that strong. All it took was one little special election, and one big lost seat, to reveal that fact, reorder Washington, and force Jon Favreau to rewrite a major speech.

President Obama goes into the State of the Union address at perhaps the low point in his relationship with Congress.

His top priority is on the shelf. Democrats are worried about coattails -- while grabbing their coats and headed for different careers. The big idea designed to catch the attention of independent voters? Met with a big flat no thanks, from the president’s allies on the Hill.

If the president can win back the confidence of his allies on the Hill, that would be a major step back toward getting his agenda on track. He still has the kind of congressional majorities George W. Bush would have loved. What he doesn’t have are soldiers willing to march for him at the moment.

The big picture -- don’t expect retreat. The president has talked repeatedly about failures in communication -- not in misplaced priorities.

And remember when this was all going to be about health care? Specific details on how to get from here to there (wherever that may be) -- that can wait for another speech, maybe one with a few less people watching.

“When Mr. Obama presents his first State of the Union address on Wednesday evening, aides said he would accept responsibility, though not necessarily blame, for failing to deliver swiftly on some of the changes he promised a year ago. But he will not, aides said, accede to criticism that his priorities are out of step with the nation’s,” Jeff Zeleny reports in The New York Times.

“The public posture of the White House is that any shortcomings are the result of failing to explain effectively what they were doing -- and why. He will acknowledge making mistakes in pursuit of his agenda, aides said, but will not toss the agenda overboard in search of a more popular one.”

“A popular president has spent a year’s worth of political capital pushing an agenda that’s proving to be largely unpopular with the public,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America” Thursday. “So -- how will he recover?”

The tone? “A hopeful Obama,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, on “GMA.” “Though Washington believes every day is an Election Day, people in this country want to know the president and the Congress are working hard together to solve the challenges and the problems that they have.”

And: “The president’s going to explain why he thinks the American people are angry and frustrated.”

“Obama's speech 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 AP’s Ben Feller writes. “The 9 p.m. EST address has enormous stakes for Obama. He rode a tide of voter frustration into office and now is getting smacked by it himself.”

What he can’t get done with a speech: “President Obama aims to deliver a game-changing message, one capable of convincing Americans that his policies will create jobs, curb spending and restore prosperity,” the Los Angeles Times’ Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons report. “But with voter discontent over his healthcare overhaul running high and the recession's effects cutting deep, the president's trademark eloquence may not be the antidote to his troubles.”

This is it? “His goals will be to reset his agenda, assure his demoralized party that he has not given up on key priorities and try to convince a skeptical public that he can still change Washington,” Shailagh Murray and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post.

“Barack Obama won the White House in part because he controlled the narrative of the campaign, a story line of change and possibility,” Bloomberg’s Ed Chen and Nicholas Johnston report. “His first State of the Union address today is a chance for a rewrite.”

Mass. in mind: “The president’s address, his first official State of the Union speech, is shaping up as a policy answer to the political wake-up call Obama and Democrats received with the election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy,” Susan Milligan writes in The Boston Globe. “Instead [of health care], the president will emphasize a fresh agenda: cutting federal spending, bolstering the economy, and encouraging private-sector job creation.”

As for the immediate crowd: “President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be all smiles as the president arrives at the Capitol for his State of the Union speech Wednesday night, but the happy faces can’t hide relationships that are fraying and fraught,” Politico’s Glenn Thrush and John Bresnahan report.

They add: “In a display of contempt unfathomable in the feel-good days after Obama’s Inauguration, freshman Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) stood up at a meeting with Pelosi last week to declare: ‘Reid is done; he’s going to lose’ in November, according to three people who were in the room. Titus denied Tuesday evening that she had singled out Reid, but she acknowledged that she said Democrats would be ‘f---ed’ if they failed to heed the lessons of Massachusetts, where Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat last week.”

Only fueling the frustration on the Hill: “His decision to use the speech to call for a spending freeze, his full-court press for reconfirmation of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and his arms-length approach to much of the politically crippling health care debate have hardly been welcomed by House and Senate Democrats,” Emily Pierce writes for Roll Call.

On the spending freeze -- ABC’s Jonathan Karl catches up with a few of the president’s usual allies: “At a time when people are going hungry and our educational system is crumbling, do we want to cut back or freeze these programs? No,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “As much as I want to support the president, I have doubts,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.

Behind the new priorities -- it’s not just Massachusetts: “According to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 51% of Americans believe Mr. Obama has paid ‘too little attention’ to the economy. Forty-four percent think he has paid ‘too much attention’ to his proposed overhaul of health care. A plurality continues to think that Mr. Obama's health-care plan is a bad idea,” the Journal’s Peter Wallsten writes.

Details -- on jobs: “He will make small-business hiring the centerpiece of that message, pressing Congress to act on a slate of tax cuts that have languished for months,” Jonathan Weisman and Peter Wallsten write in The Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Obama will call for eliminating capital-gains taxes on investments in small businesses. He will redouble efforts to give small employers a tax credit for new hires. And he will call for extending bigger tax breaks to those that purchase new facilities and equipment.”

Not frozen -- and being touted in the run-up: “President Obama will propose a major increase in funding for elementary and secondary education for the coming year in Wednesday's State of the Union address, one of the few areas that would grow in an otherwise austere federal budget,” Nick Anderson and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post. “The proposal to raise federal education spending by as much as $4 billion in the next fiscal year was described by administration officials Tuesday night as the start of an effort to revamp the No Child Left Behind law enacted under President George W. Bush. ... The funding would include a $1.35 billion increase in Obama's ‘Race to the Top’ competitive grants for school reform.”

For the symbolism: “Within tomorrow’s State of the Union address, President Obama will extend a freeze on the pay for top government officials and political appointees,” ABC’s Sunlen Miller reports. “This year the president is extending this freeze to all political employees, including executive branch employees under the executive schedule, ambassadors, non-career members of the foreign service, and politically appointed senior executive service employees.”

Responding to Citizens United: “President Barack Obama in his first State of the Union address on Wednesday night will encourage Congress to pass legislation restricting foreign corporations from getting involved in federal elections,” Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel writes.

ABC’s coverage of the State of the Union comes at 9 pm ET, with Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos anchoring, and reporting from Jake Tapper, Jon Karl, and Martha Raddatz. Coverage continues through “Nightline” at 11:35 pm ET.

ABC News NOW’s coverage starts at 8:30 pm ET, with a special “Nightline Twittercast” hosted by Terry Moran, Yunji de Nies, and myself. We’ll be joined by ABC political analyst Matthew Dowd, plus guests from Capitol Hill. Coverage will livestream at ABCNews.com.

Review some presidential pep talks from previous State of the Union addresses, as compiled by ABC’s Devin Dwyer and Lindsey Ellerson.

On health care -- why rush? “With no clear path forward on major health care legislation, Democratic leaders in Congress effectively slammed the brakes on President Obama’s top domestic priority on Tuesday, saying they no longer felt pressure to move quickly on a health bill after eight months of setting deadlines and missing them,” The New York Times’ David M. Herszenhorn and Robert Pear report.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.: “There is no rush.”

Everyone agree? From the media advisory, for the 11 am ET event on Capitol Hill: “Today, hours before the President’s State of the Union Address and at a key moment in the health care negotiations between the House and Senate, Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL), Democracy for America Chair Jim Dean, and leaders from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and Credo Action will hold a press event outside the Hart Senate Office Building calling on the Senate to pass a public health insurance option through reconciliation.”

Any path at all will do: “Centrist Democratic senators have circumvented party leadership to approach Maine GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins about reviving healthcare talks,” The Hill’s Alexander Bolton reports. “Democrats such as Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) have approached Snowe within the past week to discuss her potential support for various healthcare proposals.”

Not much time to change some storylines around... Amy Walter, at National Journal: “Much closer on the horizon are state filing deadlines for ballot access. The sun may come out tomorrow, but for those folks who have a go/no-go decision in their immediate future, they only see dark clouds. This makes for a dreary scenario for Democratic committee flacks. Instead of a ‘flood’ of retirements, it's more likely to be a steady drip.”

Getting out there -- President Obama is planning a trip to Florida Thursday, then New Hampshire Tuesday, backing up the messaging with local/national events.

Seriously? No scheduling conflicts sitting around anywhere? “Gov. Charlie Crist, who has been taking a steady pounding for his ‘man hug’ with President Barack Obama in February, now says he might be with the president again Thursday in Tampa,” Steve Bousquet reports in the St. Petersburg Times. “If we can work it out logistically, I'll be with him,” Crist said Tuesday.

When did New York Democrats change their primary process into a name-calling contest? Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is calling Harold Ford Jr. a “parakeet”: “Him calling me names doesn't hurt me but it affects New York because it distracts from issues,” Gillibrand tells the New York Post’s Maggie Haberman. “All we know about him is his record which is abysmal for New York.”

On the Hill, a big day for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner: “Facing a rising tempest and new investigations, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Wednesday will defend before Congress his 2008 decision to use taxpayer bailout money to pay major banks the full $62 billion face value of bets made on risky offshore securities,” McClatchy’s Greg Gordon reports.

Per ABC’s Matthew Jaffe, in Geithner's prepared testimony, the Treasury chief reiterates that he had no input on disclosure decisions at AIG. “I had no role in making decisions regarding what to disclose about the specific financial terms of Maiden Lane II and Maiden Lane III, and payments to AIG's counterparties,” he says.

One year in, taking stock -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to Tavis Smiley, on the new primetime “Tavis Smiley Reports” Wednesday on PBS: “Now, there's a lot of work to be done; we still face many threats and other issues that we have to deal with, but I think we’ve changed the tone, we’ve changed the attitude, and there's a great deal more openness to the United States.”

Plus, how campaign critiques changed her view on gender equity: “What I was not prepared for was a lot of the criticism that I thought had less to do with me and more to do with attitudes about women, that was surprising to me. I mean, it was 2007 and 2008, but you know, that’s something we still have to work on in this country.”

Look for Sen.-elect Scott Brown, R-Mass., to be sworn in Feb. 11: “That's 23 days after the election, but the sense among his supporters that he must be seated immediately has eased somewhat now that President Obama and Congressional leaders have promised there will be no scramble to ram a health care bill through the Senate before he takes office,” Lisa Wangsness reports in The Boston Globe. “The interim period will allow the requisite time for overseas military ballots to arrive, for town and city clerks to submit official vote counts to the Secretary of State's office, and for the governor's council to formally accept them. It also gives the senator-elect a brief window in which to assemble his staff.”

But first -- Barbara Walters interviews Brown on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday.

You can’t make it up... “Alleging a plot to tamper with phones in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's office in the Hale Boggs Federal Building in downtown New Orleans, the FBI arrested four people Monday, including James O'Keefe, 25, a conservative filmmaker whose undercover videos at ACORN field offices severely damaged the advocacy group's credibility,” David Hammer reports in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“Also arrested were Joseph Basel, Stan Dai and Robert Flanagan, all 24. Flanagan is the son of William Flanagan, who is the acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana. All four men were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony.”

“Given that history with O'Keefe, Democrats gleefully pored over the details of the criminal charges Tuesday, while Republicans either spoke about waiting for all the facts to come out or kept their thoughts to themselves,” The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig and Garance Franke-Ruta report.

The Kicker:

“Is somebody having lox?” -- Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., smelling something fishy in the Capitol.

“That was a one-time incident.” -- Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., on how he plans to conduct himself this time around.

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