Obama to stress centrist agenda

By David Usborne

The retooled President Barack Obama will come fully into view as he undertakes the annual ritual of delivering the State of the Union address to Congress tomorrow.

No more the stubborn champion of change and legislative reform; make way for the shepherd of national unity and cross-party conciliation.

It will be a pivot to the political centre that has largely been forced on him, not least by the loss of control of the lower house to the Republicans in November. And with the clock ticking down on his own re-election effort, Obama knows that voters want progress, especially on jobs, not ideological jousting.

"My number one focus," Obama said in a video message to supporters, "is going to be making sure that we are competitive, and we are creating jobs not just now but well into the future." The theme of his speech, he said, would be "winning the future".

Even the stagecraft will give Obama and his message of co-operation an extra lift. Instead of following tradition and sitting in two party blocks facing each other across the chamber, Democrats and Republicans are being encouraged to mingle. It's a symbolic gesture but one that may prove a powerful one.

But yesterday, Republican leaders were pointing to what could turn out to be the most serious pothole in front of the White House - the need to persuade Congress to raise America's debt limit which, at US$14.3 trillion ($18.8 trillion), is likely to be breached soon, possibly at the end of March.

While the Administration has warned that failing to increase the limit could be "catastrophic" for the US and cause it to default on debt payments, Republicans are looking to use the issue to force through their agenda of deep spending cuts that many of them promised in last year's mid-term elections.

Extremely delicate bridges must be crossed, however, before either side can agree on meaningful cuts.

While Republicans talk of courageous action to cut the deficit, they know that will mean slicing into sacred cows including the budgets for defence and social security.

Obama will make the short journey to Capitol Hill with his approval rating back up to 50 per cent in several polls, a shift attributed to his handling of the Tucson shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the progress made on several fronts, including gays in the military, and improving economic sentiment.

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