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President Obama enters State of the Union riding wave of triumphs

President Barack Obama, with first lady Michelle Obama, center, and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, talks about plans to help military families on Monday.

Associated Press

President Barack Obama, with first lady Michelle Obama, center, and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, talks about plans to help military families on Monday.

WASHINGTON — Unemployment is still rampant. War continues. Debt looms.

Yet President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address tonight in his strongest position since 2009, enjoying a run of legislative triumphs and the tentative signs that better economic times are ahead.

Obama's approval rating has climbed to 50 percent or more, according to numerous polls. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Monday showed 55 percent of Americans think he is doing a good job, up 7 percentage points from December.

It's a surprise turn for a president who saw Democrats, in his own words, take a "shellacking" in November and lose control of the House.

"A lot of the intensity in the political system was drained out by the election," said Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman. "That definitely has benefited the president."

Obama's streak began in late November when he asserted himself in the "lame duck" session after the election, but before the new Congress was sworn in.

The centerpiece accomplishment was a deal to temporarily extend the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone while adding more money for unemployment benefits. Obama negotiated the plan with Republicans and dragged fellow Democrats on board.

He kept rolling, winning hard-fought approval of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia and a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gays from serving openly.

All of which helped shape Obama's image as someone willing to get things done, even if that means working across the aisle.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 40 percent of respondents labeled Obama a political moderate, his highest yet.

Then, two weeks ago, came the shooting rampage in Arizona that left six dead and a popular congresswoman seriously wounded.

At a memorial, Obama delivered one of the best-received speeches of his presidency, calming the frayed nerves of a nation and tamping down aggressive political rhetoric in Washington — for now, at least.

"His Tucson speech was excellent," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "He tapped into the emotions of the country and the angst of the country much in the same way Bill Clinton did after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995."

National tragedies can alter political direction (Hurricane Katrina was a nightmare for President George W. Bush) but any boost Obama may experience is likely fleeting, experts say.

"The question is not what his numbers look like three days after the speech but three months after the speech," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Obama still faces significant problems. The national unemployment rate hovers above 9 percent, even though it has slowly fallen in recent months.

The CNN poll showed the public is still lukewarm toward Obama's response to the economy and debt, issues he plans to address tonight but likely in more general terms than Republicans may desire.

On jobs, Americans are split 44 percent to 44 percent on whether they trust Republicans or Obama more, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.

The November elections showed independent voters think the country is on the wrong track and disagree with him over the new health care law.

Obama will face that reality head-on tonight when he steps onto the floor of the House of Representatives, where last week Republicans passed a symbolic bill to repeal the law.

The November elections may not dictate Obama's 2012 hopes (midterms rarely do), but it's critical that he get independents to come back his way. "The president is going to have to walk a very fine line," Ayres said.

At the same time, the newly drawn power in Congress gives Obama a potential foil, a forum in which to argue to Americans that he is rising above the partisanship that is certain to return as the cooling-off period from Tucson fades.

Some House Republicans are already planning to oppose raising the national debt limit, or at least negotiate deep spending cuts that could touch all corners of the federal budget.

"What's going to be so interesting to watch is whether Obama can navigate through the time where the forced civility dissipates and emerge as the guy trying to be reasonable and move the country forward and portray the Republicans as a bunch of reckless people," said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Clinton was able to do that in 1995 when newly elected Republicans forced a budget showdown that brought the government to a standstill. Mostly, Obama has to count on the economy continuing to improve.

"If at the end of 2011, he can say 'It's morning again in America' — dust off the old Reagan ads — that's going to be more important than anything else," Ornstein said.

Florida gets in on bipartisan seating

Washington is abuzz over which members of Congress are heading to the State of the Union tonight with a bipartisan date, and Florida is getting in on the action. A few examples:

• Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston will sit with Republican Reps. Dan Webster of Winter Garden and John Culberson of Texas.

• Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor will be nearby with Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and members of the bipartisan Congressional Women's Softball Team, of which Wasserman Schultz is also a member.

• Republican Rep. Tom Rooney of Tequesta will pair up with Democrat Ted Deutch of Boca Raton.

• So will Florida's bipartisan Senate duo — Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.

Speech on TV

President Barack Obama's State of the Union address will be carried at 9 tonight on the major TV networks and cable news channels.

Intern to be guest

Daniel Hernandez, a 20-year-old intern to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords whose immediate attention to her brain wound is credited with helping to save her life after she was shot in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8, will sit with first lady Michelle Obama for the State of the Union address. The family of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was the youngest of six people killed in the shooting, also will be among the guests of the first lady, the White House said Monday.

President Obama enters State of the Union riding wave of triumphs 01/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 24, 2011 10:44pm]

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