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President Barack Obama tonight will use his State of the Union address to partially recast his image and his presidency, forgoing bold proposals for smaller concerns and presenting himself as a fighter ready to do battle.
With the stunning Democratic defeat in the Massachusetts Senate race just over a week old, Obama will focus directly on the concerns of average voters and portray himself as just the man to stand up to Washingtons special interests, according to White House officials familiar with Obamas plans for the speech.
While he still may mention grand plans to reform health care and offer lofty visions of hope, Obamas emphasis will be on bread-and-butter issues of concern to the middle class, the sources said.
His call for a three-year spending freeze is designed to address the concerns of average voters that his first year and President George W. Bushs last has coincided with an explosion of the deficit. He will have specific proposals to help seniors, students and average income earners and vow to fight to get them passed.
Obama as populist pugilist is a contrast to the image he has usually conveyed, one that has relied more on inspiration and an eagerness to get along with others in particular, Republicans.
But while White House aides continue to pay lip service to the notion of bipartisanship, they privately believe Republicans have shown little willingness to take what they see as Obamas outstretched hand, and they understand the GOP has little incentive to compromise during an election year.
The new feistiness was teed up by the White House during a trip to Ohio last Friday, when the president repeatedly used the word fight while describing his intentions for the coming year.
Democrats, particularly imperiled moderate Blue Dogs, are likely to be cheered by the new Obama. His emphasis on fiscal discipline, for example, is tailored to soothe independent voters who will make the difference in Blue Dog districts.
The deficit is a big concern for independents and one of the underlying reasons why they have been falling away from the president, said one senior Democratic aide. Its a key issue for Democrats in moderate districts.
This source added that Obamas combative tone will accentuate the message. The feistiness is tapping into the urgency of what people are feeling today, the aide said.
But presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution questioned whether a fighting Obama will come off as authentic.
The question is, is he really comfortable firing up the rhetoric? Hess asked. Is he really being true to himself?
White House aides reject the notion of a reinvented Obama. I think if you go look at what the president talked about in Ohio on Friday and you look at a lot of what the president talked about throughout the first year and throughout the campaign, youll find a remarkable amount of similarity, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. Quite frankly, I mean, in all honesty, go back to 2004 at the convention and youll see a lot of that there as well.
Indeed, Obama will pound home his desire to continue to change the ways of Washington. And the health care initiative, he has signaled in recent days, has not been abandoned.