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« State of the Political Landscape | Blog Home Page | SC-5 Poll: Good News For Spratt »

Speech Tests Obama's Ability To Set Agenda

With interest in the new president still high, more than 50 million Americans watched Barack Obama deliver his first speech to a joint session of Congress last February. That audience will likely slip some as he makes his first official State of the Union address tonight, but it still represents his best opportunity in some time to speak directly to a wide audience. The question is: for how long will Americans be listening?

According to CBS News' Mark Knoller, President Obama delivered remarks of some length 411 times in his first 365 days in office, including not one but two speeches to joint sessions of Congress. He also was made available for 158 interviews, far more than his recent predecessors, and held four prime-time news conferences. It's part of a communication strategy based in the belief that Obama is the administration's best advocate, and that the press and the public would pay attention.

The risk now is that as Americans grow more skeptical of the administration and its policies, they may start to tune out that messenger. A CNN poll released Tuesday found that six in 10 Americans believe Obama to be a strong leader, but only 45 percent say he has the right priorities. The State of the Union address is seen as an opportunity for the president to better communicate those priorities, something Obama has conceded recently he has failed to do.

"We've been so focused on just getting things done that I think that we stopped giving voice to the frustrations that people have about the process here in Washington," Obama told ABC's Diane Sawyer Monday.

Tonight may be the last chance Obama gets to set the agenda in a way that commands the attention of lawmakers, the press, and voters watching at home. Part of the rationale for the "big bang" approach of the first year was the recognition that the reality of politics sets in during the second. Sure enough, Democrats and Republicans have already spoken critically of new proposals that have been leaked before the speech, most notably a freeze on discretionary spending. How well Obama uses the bully pulpit tonight, and when he hits the road after, will test whether he can still convince the public at large.

Obama's effectiveness in selling the message has indeed declined throughout the year. He saw only a modest bump on health care after his last address before Congress in September. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out Tuesday night found that only 31 percent of those surveyed thought Obama's health care plan was a good idea, while 46 percent said a bad idea. In September, it was a closer 39/41 split. Forty-four percent also said Obama has paid too much attention to health care, while more than 50 percent say he hasn't focused enough on the economy, despite assurances of a "hard pivot" to the economy.

On the stump, Obama has also failed to seal the deal. Thousands jammed venues to see the commander in chief, but each of the three Democrats he's campaigned for since October losing. Obama conceded to an audience in Ohio last Friday that he had hit a "buzz saw," particularly after a defeat in Massachusetts. He's expected to accept some responsibility for the missteps that led to leaving unfulfilled some of the promises he made for his first year. The challenge tonight is to give Americans reason to follow along to avoid an even worse outcome this fall.