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Obama faces street fight down the road

Mark Mardell | 20:53 UK time, Monday, 24 January 2011

President Barack Obama

The tone of the President Barack Obama's State of the Union address will be framed by an absence, an empty seat, a politician who can't be in the House of Representatives chamber to hear him.

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has brought Democrats and Republicans closer together, underlining what unites them rather than divides them. And it just so happens that this mood is immensely helpful to the president. In his speech he will do all he can to reinforce a sense of a new era of common goals.

The first lady's special guests will be victims and heroes of the shooting in Tucson, Arizona. Daniel Hernandez, the intern who helped the congresswoman when she was shot, will be there. So will the family of the youngest victim, nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green.

Some politicians will do their bit.

The lambs are inviting the lions to sheath their claws for the night and lie down beside them. Or at least sit down next to them. Some Democratic and Republican politicians will sit side by side instead of, as usual, divided by an aisle. The Republican who interrupted the president last year by calling out "you lie" will join in this display of bipartisanship. Others grumpily refuse. After all, the symbolic gesture is highly political. It is in the Democratic lambs' interest if the Republican lions make nice. They don't want the new masters of the House to savage their programmes.

The president is likely to summon the power of the American Dream in his state of the union address. The "American Dream" classically refers to the ability of every American to make it, what ever their background.

But a powerful part of the dream is also the vision of a country where all Americans pull together regardless of party, where politicians rise above faction for the common good. Mr Obama evoked it to huge effect in his election campaign and it is something he is now trying to recapture.

State of the union speeches are rarely momentous. But they are opportunities.

Last year 48 million people watched Mr Obama's address. After 2010, his year of constant shellacking, things might be turning around for the man who fell to earth.

His approval rating is the highest since last February and some opinion polls have him back above 50% with the help of all-important independent voters.

Some advisers say this is down to an improving economy. But spokesman Robert Gibbs thinks it is down to what went on in the so-called lame duck session of Congress before Christmas:

People put aside game-playing and broad bipartisan majorities made progress on behalf of the American people. I think the American people saw two groups sitting down at a big table and figuring out how to solve our problems. And I think because of that, people have reacted positively to the progress that has been made.

Part of the tone of the speech, is of course set by its content. I am torn as to whether there will be a glancing reference to gun control, a promise perhaps of a "Christina's law" controlling the sort of magazines containing 30 bullets that were used by the accused Tucson killer. My gut instinct says he will, but it sets my alarm bells ringing very loudly. He will want to avoid starting an immediate partisan debate as the story of the night.

The focus will be on jobs. If common sense didn't tell us that, a sneak preview does. He'll talk, but probably not in detail, about the importance of innovation, competitiveness and education to the American economy. There will be more than a nod to Republican concerns about "leaner and smarter government" and dealing with the deficit and debt.

It is hard to see how Mr Obama can avoid a bitter, bare-knuckle fight further down the road.

"Competiveness and education" sound innocuous enough, but they mean more government spending.

"Dealing with the deficit" may have everyone nodding their heads, but Mr Obama doesn't want to deal with it as quickly and severely as the Republicans who control the house.

What he can do with the State of the Union is condition the debate, claim the mantle of reasonableness and consensus. I have been saying for sometime now that this year will end in a blame game. Who threatened the recovery? Who stopped progress from "Middle Class families ?"

Mr Obama stands alone at the podium and doesn't get the chance to buddy up with a Republican colleague. But he will do all he can to wrap his arms around the lot of them, and show he's willing to sit down and do business.

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