US & Canada

State of the Union 2011: Barack Obama to focus on jobs

President Barack Obama on the White House grounds Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Obama is expected to call for a five-year freeze in non-defence spending

US President Barack Obama will call for new public spending to create jobs in his State of the Union address, setting up a clash with opponents who say cuts to government are the way forward.

In the president's yearly address to Congress, Mr Obama is expected to call for new investment in education, research and infrastructure.

Mr Obama said at the weekend creating jobs was his "number one focus".

Republicans have warned they will reject his calls for added spending.

BBC North America editor Mark Mardell says State of the Union speeches are rarely momentous, but they are opportunities. Last year Mr Obama was watched by 48 million people.

The president can use the speech to condition the debate ahead of his 2012 re-election bid, claiming the mantle of reasonableness and consensus, our correspondent says.

But it is hard to see how Mr Obama can avoid a bitter, bare-knuckle fight further down the road, in a Congress where Republicans now control the House of Representatives and have trimmed the Democrats' sails in the Senate, our correspondent adds.

Shift to centre

In Mr Obama's State of the Union address, his second, he will lay out his policy agenda for the next year and will attempt to shape the national political narrative to his advantage.

He will also call for a five-year freeze in non-security US government spending and a ban on so-called earmarks - government grants that legislators direct to favoured projects in their constituencies.

He will also back a plan put forth by Defence Secretary Robert Gates to trim $78bn in from the military budget, the Associated Press reported, quoting an anonymous administration official.

Mr Obama is expected to frame himself as a centrist moderate keen to co-operate where possible with the US business community and with the Republican Party, analysts say.

The shift, signalled in a series of recent speeches and personnel changes, comes after the Democrats were soundly beaten in the November elections, with Republicans portraying Mr Obama as a big-spending liberal and arguing his policies had hindered job growth.

But Mr Obama's job approval numbers have been on the rise in recent weeks, seen in part as the result of his success in pushing a series of new laws through the so-called lame duck Congress at the end of last year.

He also won praise for his response to a shooting in Tucson in Arizona two weeks ago, an attack that killed six, including a federal judge, and wounded 13, including US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Republicans opened the budget fight on Tuesday with a vote to pare the US budget back to 2008 levels

Among those who will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama at the president's speech will be the family of a nine-year-old girl who was killed, an aide to Ms Giffords who helped her at the scene and surgeons who have treated the wounded lawmaker.

In a gesture toward cooling political passions in Washington, some Republicans and Democrats plan to sit together during Mr Obama's speech, a departure from past practice in which the two parties sat on opposite sides of the centre aisle in the House chamber.

In a video address to supporters on Saturday, Mr Obama cited progress on the economy since he took office two years ago amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

But he acknowledged: "We've still got a lot more work to do.

"My principle focus - my number one focus - is going to be making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing, and we are creating jobs not just now but well into the future," he said in the video.

"We're going to have to out-innovate, we're going to have to out-build, we're going to have to out-compete, we're going to have to out-educate other countries, that's our challenge."

Responding to growing voter concerns about government spending amid massive budget deficits and national debt held by China, Mr Obama also pledged to make the US government "leaner and smarter".

'Pumping up government'

The Republican Party has already pledged to oppose the president's plans, and a large, prominent group of the most conservative House Republicans has proposed slashing $2.5 trillion (£1.57 trillion) from the federal non-defence budget over the next 10 years.

The Republicans hold the majority in the House of Representatives and enough strength in the US Senate to block unilateral Democratic action on economic policy, but are unable to dictate their own agenda.

"We'll take a look at his recommendations," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on Sunday. "We always do. But this is not a time to be looking at pumping up government spending in very many areas."

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