WASHINGTON — Eager to command center stage in a year dominated by Republican infighting, President Barack Obama is polishing a State of the Union address that will go to the heart of Americans' economic anxiety and try to sway voters to give him four more years. He will speak Tuesday to a nation worried about daily struggles and unhappy with his handling of the economy.
Obama's 9 p.m. EST address before a politically divided Congress will be built around ideas meant to appeal to a squeezed middle class. He is expected to urge higher taxes on the wealthy, propose ways to make college more affordable, offer new steps to tackle a debilitating housing crisis and try to help U.S. manufacturers expand hiring.
Designed as a way for a president to update the nation and recommend ideas to Congress, the State of the Union address has become more than that, especially during that one window when the address falls during the re-election year of an incumbent. It is televised theater — and Obama's biggest, best chance so far to offer a vision for a second term.
He will frame the campaign to come as a fight for fairness for those who are struggling to keep a job, a home or college savings and losing faith in how the county works.
The speech will be principally about the economy, featuring the themes of manufacturing, clean energy, education and American values.
No matter whom Obama faces in November, the election is likely to be driven by the economy, and determined by which candidate wins voters' trust on how to fix it. More people than not disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy.
The overarching political goal is to give voters a contrast between his vision of a government that tries to level the playing field and those office-seekers who, in his view, would leave people on their own. Without naming them, Obama has in his sights those after his job, including Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
The presidential campaign sets an unmistakable context for the speech, right down to the nation's income gap between haves and have-nots. Obama will speak on a few hours after Romney, a former governor and businessman whose wealth is the hundreds of millions of dollars, will release tax records for 2010 and 2011.
The lines of argument between Obama and his rivals are already stark, with America's economic insecurity and the role of government at the center.
The president has offered signals about his speech, telling campaign supporters he wants an economy "that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few." Gingrich, on the other hand, calls Obama "the most effective food stamp president in history." Romney says Obama "wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society."
Obama's tone will be highly scrutinized given that his address falls smack in the middle of a fierce and frenzied Republican presidential nomination process. He will make bipartisan overtures to lawmakers but will leave little doubt he will act without opponents when it's necessary and possible, an approach his aides say has let him stay on offense.
The public is more concerned about domestic troubles over foreign policy than at other any time in the past 15 years, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Some 81 percent want Obama to focus his speech on domestic affairs, not foreign ones; just five years ago, the view was evenly split.
On the day before Obama's speech, his campaign released a short Web ad showing monthly job losses during the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration, with positive job growth for nearly two Obama years. Republicans assail him as failing to achieve a lot more.
House Speaker John Boehner, responding to reports of Obama's speech themes, said it was a rehash of unhelpful policies. "It's pathetic," he said.
Obama will offer economic proposals for this year, despite long odds against getting the help he would need from Republicans.
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that Obama is not conceding the next 10 months to "campaigning alone" when people need economic help. On the goals of helping people get a fair shot, Carney said: "There's ample room within those boundaries for bipartisan cooperation and for getting this done."
For three days following his speech, Obama will promote his ideas in five states key to his re-election bid: Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan. He speaks on Friday about college affordability at the University of Michigan.
Meanwhile, the Republican race is suddenly a race again, given Gingrich's resounding win in the South Carolina primary over the weekend. Romney, who appeared the strong front-runner coming into that primary, is now focusing on Gingrich more than Obama as the GOP contest unfolds in Florida.
Vice President Joe Biden, in an interview with radio host Ryan Seacrest, said Monday there is no ideological difference between any of the Republicans seeking to challenge Obama. He said the campaign will offer the clearest choice in which direction to take the country since the era of the Great Depression.
Polling shows Americans are divided about Obama's overall job approval but unsatisfied with his handling of the economy.