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First Thoughts: Focusing on the economy

Obama to focus on the economy in State of the Union… A reminder: As the economy goes, so goes Obama (and his second-term agenda)… The speech, politically, also will be a way to frame the sequester debate… Rubio’s chance in the spotlight… And the danger for Hagel: having his confirmation vote linger.

As NBC's Tracie Potts reports, the president's State of the Union speech "will outline his plan to create jobs and grow the middle class by investing in people."

*** Focusing on the economy: President Obama’s inaugural address last month was billed as a call to action, as well as a not-so-subtle declaration that American politics had been transformed -- on the role of government, on gay rights, and on war. But tomorrow night’s State of the Union will have a slightly different focus, White House aides say, with Obama emphasizing the economy and revisiting the economic themes from his re-election campaign. The speech “will outline his plan to create jobs and grow the middle class by investing in people,” an administration official tells First Read, adding: “The president’s plan grows the economy from the middle out by investing in manufacturing, clean energy, education, and infrastructure.” Obama also will call on Congress to reduce the nation’s deficit and debt, including via entitlement reform, but he will say these cuts need to be balanced and not borne solely by the middle class. The White House always viewed his two big speeches in three weeks (the inaugural and State of the Union) as two bites at the bully-pulpit apple. And the same administration official calls the two speeches “two acts in the same play.” While the White House maintains they have been focused on the economy, tomorrow’s speech will put an end to the chatter (they hope) that they haven’t spent enough time TALKING about the economy.

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks during an Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at Joint Base Myer-Henderson in Arlington, Va., Feb. 8, 2013.

*** A reminder: As the economy goes, so goes Obama (and his second-term agenda): Yet with Obama spending his political capital on his proposals to curb gun violence and reform the nation’s immigration system -- which he’ll also address on Tuesday -- reemphasizing the economy allows the president to return to the issue that remains the public’s top concern. After all, the unemployment rate, while down substantially from its high in 2009, is at 7.9%, and GDP contracted in the fourth quarter of 2012. And according to our national NBC/WSJ poll, only 36% of respondents said they were either “very” or “fairly” confident in Obama’s ability to promote a strong and growing economy. Remember, if the economy slows down, it makes it harder to get anything else done (like on guns or immigration).

*** Framing the sequester: Another way to look at Obama’s State of the Union is to frame the budget debate over the looming sequester -- that is, the automatic spending cuts (in defense and other programs) set to take place in March. As Politico writes, “President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech will be less a presidential olive branch than a congressional cattle prod. Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.” More: “Privately, administration officials see [the speech] as an extension of Obama’s unabashedly provocative and progressive Jan. 21 inaugural address, their latest attempt to leverage favorable deals on the sequester and the debt ceiling comparable to the watershed deal Obama secured on increasing taxes on the wealthy. Obama now hopes to use his post-election popularity to force new tax increases and fewer budget cuts on Republicans as part of any deal to avert a $1.2 trillion menu of automatic cuts increasingly likely to kick in on March 1.” This won’t be as easy as the fiscal cliff because Obama has got to get Congress to pro-actively stop it. And right now, House Republicans seem nearly unified on the idea of letting the cuts happen.

*** Rubio’s chance in the spotlight: In addition to Obama, there’s another person who will be in the spotlight on Tuesday night -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is giving the GOP response. This is a great opportunity for the potential 2016er. But as we noted last week, the State of the Union responder hasn’t been a great stepping stone for those looking to run for higher office. In fact, the last eventual party nominee to deliver the response was Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) in 1996. And the last person to deliver one and go on to be president was Bill Clinton in 1985 when he was governor of Arkansas.

*** Do you have to let it linger? Finally, while it remains pretty clear that Chuck Hagel still has the votes to be confirmed as the president’s defense secretary, any day that goes by when there’s not a vote isn’t a good day for him. That said, Politico reports that the Senate Armed Services Committee could vote on Hagel’s nomination as soon as Tuesday, “but Republican aides reacted to that idea by suggesting that some members could walk out in protest.” Democrats and the Obama White House, if they want him confirmed, can’t let his nomination linger.Click here to sign up for First Read emails.

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