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President Obama reclaims the spotlight tonight from his Republican rivals when he delivers his State of the Union address. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the president will try to frame the choice voters face in November.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The Obama re-election campaign is trying to make the most of tonight's address. It's organizing house parties where supporters can get together to watch the speech. And over the weekend, Mr. Obama sent a video preview to followers, saying he wants an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: On Tuesday night, I'm going to talk about how we'll get there. I'm going to lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last.
HORSLEY: That blueprint will include several key pillars, including manufacturing, domestic energy, and worker training. Mr. Obama will urge Congress to work with him on those issues. But he also promised, in his weekly radio address, to act on his own when necessary.
OBAMA: I will continue to work with Congress, states, and leaders in the private sector to find ways to move this country forward. But where they can't act or won't act, I will. Because we want the world to know that America is open for business.
HORSLEY: Political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says tonight's nationally televised speech is a good platform for Mr. Obama. But it's one he has to use carefully.
JACK PITNEY: The president needs to draw a contrast between himself and the Republicans and at the same time come across as presidential, as someone who is president of all the people. That's a difficult rhetorical feat. But President Obama is very rhetorically skilled.
Mr. Obama is likely to tout some notable foreign policy accomplishments, such as ending the war in Iraq, beginning the troop draw-down in Afghanistan, and most importantly, killing Osama bin Laden.
HORSLEY: But it's the economy that's likely to dominate tonight's speech, as well as the November election. White House spokesman Jay Carney says middle-class families are still feeling an economic squeeze, even as the country slowly recovers from the deep downturn of the last few years.
JAY CARNEY: This theme about economic insecurity for the middle class is what got this president into politics. And he thinks that overwhelmingly the American people share his view that we need to have everyone play by the same rules, whether it's Wall Street or Main Street. And we need to have a tax system that ensures that everyone pays their fair share.
HORSLEY: That populist tax message may get some extra attention today, with Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's release of his 2010 tax return. Mr. Obama has argued it's not fair that wealthy investors sometimes pay a lower tax rate than many middle class families.
OBAMA: It's wrong that in the United States of America a teacher or a nurse or construction worker, maybe earns $50,000 a year, should pay a higher tax rate than somebody raking in $50 million.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
HORSLEY: That's the president last month in Osawatomie, Kansas, a speech that telegraphed many of the themes we're likely to hear tonight and throughout the presidential campaign. Mr. Obama is defending an activist Teddy Roosevelt-style of government while rejecting the unfettered market model championed by many of today's Republicans.
OBAMA: Our success has never just been about survival of the fittest. It's about building a nation where we're all better off. We pull together. We pitch in. We do our part.
HORSLEY: Fifty-two million Americans tuned in for Mr. Obama's first speech to a joint session of Congress three years ago. Since then, the audience has dropped off some, but it's still a big prime-time opportunity. Even with all those eyeballs, though, political analyst Pitney says this kind of speech rarely alters the political landscape.
PITNEY: The State of the Union isn't a battle. It's merely the opening shot in a long war. And we're going to see a lot of other skirmishes in the months ahead.
HORSLEY: Indeed, Mr. Obama sets off tomorrow on a three-day trip in which he'll be amplify the themes of tonight's speech in five different battleground states.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.