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A Skeptical GOP Is Obama’s Top Target

Tuesday night is all about the audience.

When President Barack Obama delivers his second State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, he will have a special charge: winning over Republicans still skeptical about whether he is willing to compromise and be an ally in the fight to create jobs, reduce the deficit and get the budget back in the black.

This year’s speech couldn’t be more different from last year’s.

Rather than focus on specific Democratic policy proposals, Obama will speak in broad themes that already have strong bipartisan support: job creation, international competitiveness and fiscal discipline. And he will be looking to appeal to a new GOP House majority — and independent voters — with talk of consensus building and gentler rhetoric; he will build on the message he delivered in his speech earlier this month at the Tucson, Ariz., memorial.

“I don’t think you’ll see a laundry list of issues” in the address, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday. “I don’t think this has tended to be a speech that is ... one where you spend big chunks of time walking through the specific machinations of the policies.”

House and Senate Republican leaders say Obama has an opportunity to prove himself as a bipartisan arbiter in the 112th Congress, but they say he will need to do more than give a single speech to prove it. Obama has had little success so far extending olive branches to Republicans: His appearance at the GOP retreat last January resulted in a heated question-and-answer session, and his bipartisan health care summit at the White House last February amounted to little more than political theater.

“I’m looking to see what decision this president makes through his remarks tomorrow as to the direction that he will take in the context of where we’ve been over the last two years,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday during a sit-down with reporters.

“The question is, is he going to decouple himself from what we’ve seen over the last two years and what he has been selling? Is he going to continue to sell that which he did or will there be a new direction?” the Virginia Republican asked. “The success of this Congress will rest on that question, as will frankly the outcome of the election in November 2012.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who cut a deal late last year with Obama on extending the Bush-era tax cuts, said the president has already signaled he is trying to move in a different direction. The Kentucky Republican suggested Obama is showing signs of being more business-friendly in his next two years: Both Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden recently hired Wall Street executives as their new chiefs of staff.

“He’s quit bashing business and is now celebrating business,” McConnell said during a “Fox News Sunday” interview. “It is a kind of a trust-but-verify moment. Let’s see if he’s really willing to do it, and if he is, I think he’ll find a lot of help among Republicans.”

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