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Obama annual speech to take aim at inequality

January 27, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address a year ago was a sweeping declaration of liberal values, made possible by the momentum of his recent re-election. This year, after his legislative goals largely crumbled in what’s been called the worst year of his presidency, Obama is less popular than before.

Much of Congress faces re-election in November, and Obama’s speech on Tuesday night is likely to do little to help his fellow Democrats as they try to keep their fragile majority in the Senate.

Although not explicitly political, his speech before millions on live television will frame an economic argument that Democrats hope will resonate with voters.

Obama would see any hope of moving any of his agenda through Congress evaporate if Democrats lose the Senate in November. Democrats are less confident about their prospects for taking back control of the House of Representatives, where Republicans are expected to retain their majority.

Obama is expected to describe a choice between an America where all parts of the population have opportunities to improve their lives and one where prosperity is disproportionately enjoyed by a select few.

In recent weeks, the president has sought to focus the nation’s attention on trends of inequality and lower social mobility that he’s promising to address in his final years in office.

With the economy still a top issue for most voters, Democrats see issues of economic fairness and expanding access to the middle class as their best chance to win or stay in office.

“Middle-class security is the defining issue of our time,” said Rep. Steve Israel, who chairs the Democrats’ campaign arm for the House of Representatives.

When Obama invited Senate Democrats to a meeting at the White House this month, much of the session focused on how Democrats wanted him to focus on the idea of expanding economic opportunity in his State of the Union, said a White House official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss a private meeting by name and requested anonymity.

Republicans also have taken notice of the public’s interest. In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers have publicly offered their own ideas about reducing poverty in the U.S.

In an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month, 68 percent said they’d like the federal government expend a moderate or great amount of effort reducing the gap between rich and poor. By comparison, less than half wanted the government to focus on advancing gay rights or fighting climate change.

Finding a theme with cross-party appeal is especially critical for Obama’s party this year, when Democrats are defending 21 of 35 Senate seats — many of them in Southern, conservative-leaning states where Obama’s low approval ratings are likely to hurt fellow Democrats.

But the president can focus the public’s attention on what Democrats want to do to fight unemployment, improve education and boost wages — issues that resonate deeply in those states.

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Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed.

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