WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama prepared to address the nation Tuesday night in an annual speech heavily laced with calls for economic fairness — a key political message as the U.S. heads deeper into a contentious election year with voters distressed by the wobbly economy.
With more people living in poverty and middle-class wages flat or falling, with unemployment still at 8.5 per cent and millions of Americans having lost or being threatened with the loss of their homes to mortgage foreclosures, Obama faces the ominous challenge of convincing Americans to give him a second term in November.
And that's likely the underlying theme in Obama's nationally televised State of the Union address to Congress.
Foreign policy issues will likely only receive glancing attention. That matches national concerns. A new survey by the Pew Research Center shows 81 per cent of Americans want Obama to focus his speech on domestic affairs, Five years ago, with the war still raging in Iraq, the concerns of voters were evenly split between domestic and foreign issues.
The Republican National Committee, missing no chance to remind Americans of their economic misery, has put out a new television advertisement in conjunction with Obama's speech. It hammers his handling of the economy and leaves no doubt that the opposition views the speech as a political event.
The ad reminds voters of "the 13 million unemployed and 49 million in poverty — that are a direct result of Barack Obama's failed leadership." It is on the air in the key swing states of North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan, as well as the nation's capital.
In Florida, where the next Republican primary vote is Jan. 31, presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Obama would use the speech to argue for a continuation of already-failed policies and to diminish Republicans. He said it would be "shameful" for Obama to use the State of the Union message to further divide the country.
Obama was expected to outline plans for restoring the middle class while urging voters not to abandon him as the economy finally shows signs of a rebound from the Great Recession. The deepest economic downturn since the 1930's Great Depression was already under way before Obama took over the presidency from George W. Bush three years ago.
Republicans acknowledge that but insist that Obama has bungled the recovery.
Republican candidate Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, calls Obama "the most effective food stamp president in history." That's a reference to the government food assistance program for the poor.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has slipped from Republican front-runner to parity with Gingrich in national polls, says Obama "wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society."
Obama must insist he is fighting for economic fairness in a country that has seen a vast increase in the percentage of the nation's wealth that is held by the very few. The president is expected to urge higher taxes on the wealthy, propose ways to make college more affordable, offer new steps to tackle a debilitating housing crisis and push to help U.S. manufacturers expand hiring.
The day before his speech, Obama's re-election campaign operation released a Web ad showing monthly job losses during the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration. It shows positive job growth for nearly two years of Obama's term.
The Republican House Speaker John Boehner, responding to reports of Obama's speech themes, said it was a rehash of unhelpful policies. "It's pathetic," he said.
Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, also a Republican, said he already felt a sense of disappointment about the speech. "Based on what the president's aides have been telling reporters, the goal isn't to conquer the nation's problems. It's to conquer Republicans," he said.
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said Obama is not conceding the next 10 months to "campaigning alone," given the nation's need for economic growth and jobs. On the goals of helping people get a fair shot, Carney said: "There's ample room within those boundaries for bipartisan co-operation and for getting this done."
For three days following his speech, Obama will promote his ideas in five states key to his re-election bid: Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan. Polling shows Americans are divided about Obama's overall job approval but unsatisfied with his handling of the economy.
AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller and AP writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.