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Obama's Tuesday speech a broad look at economy

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LIZ SIDOTI and JENNIFER LOVEN | February 21, 2009 09:50 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — For President Barack Obama, it's a chance to take a deep breath and paint a big picture after a first month of gargantuan economic proposals, legislative accomplishments and Cabinet missteps.

The president addresses a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, giving a State of the Union-like speech. It lacks the formality of that title only because he's not considered to have had enough time in the White House yet to deliver a full status report.

Regardless, it is one of the most high-profile trappings of the presidency: traveling to the Capitol to speak to representatives of the entire federal government, with the public watching in prime time, about his agenda.

With the recession well into its second year, expect the remarks to be longer on the economy than on foreign affairs. The economy is in just too bad shape for Obama to do anything other than focus mostly on what he's already trying to do about job losses and dwindled savings and frozen credit, as well as what else he has in mind.

The president is expected to show Americans how all the pieces fit together to make the economy sound again. There's the $787 billion just-signed stimulus bill, plus an even more expensive mix of rescues for the financial industry, auto companies and troubled mortgage holders.

He will touch on other priorities he says fit into the bigger picture. Potentially eye-popping expensive plans to broaden health care coverage to eventually insure everyone. Moving the country toward greener energy sources. Expanding education opportunities. Overhauling financial industry regulation.

And, he is all but certain to talk about the national debt and budget woes, stressing the need to get what he calls "exploding deficits" under control by controlling spending. His upcoming budget request will include his goal to slice the estimated $1.3 trillion annual deficit in half by the end of his first term.

"We cannot successfully address any of our problems without addressing them all," Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and video address. "The road ahead will be long and full of hazards. But I'm confident that we, as a people, have the strength and wisdom to carry out this strategy and overcome this crisis."

Sober themes of responsibility, accountability and transparency are to be woven throughout the speech.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs summed up Obama's message this way: "We all have a special responsibility to do what we can to put this country back on the right track and to see it through back to prosperous and better days."

Come Tuesday night, Obama will face a Congress that's still fiercely partisan despite efforts to court Republicans.

The Democratic president has achieved three big legislative accomplishments so far, on equal pay, children's health care and the economic package. Each was shaped mostly by Democrats and largely passed along party line.

Yes, his economic rescue effort would have died if not for three moderate senators who broke from the GOP. But overall, his attempts to court the GOP have been mixed.

So, too, his success at rounding out a Cabinet.

He still needs a health secretary. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle withdrew amid tax problems.

He is missing a commerce secretary. His second choice for the job, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., changed his mind after first saying yes.

Also, the Senate has not confirmed his labor nominee. Rep. Hilda Solis' nomination has been held up over questions about tax liens her husband recently paid.

The president was spending much of the weekend at the White House refining and rehearsing the speech.

"This is a refocusing on what he wants his presidency to be for the next four years," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "It's been a whirling dervish for him ... Now I think he's got to stop for a moment."

The stakes are high.

His approval ratings are strong, with about two-thirds of the public behind him. But Republicans scored political points by branding parts of the stimulus bill as wasteful or ineffective. Obama and Democrats could pay a large political price if the economy doesn't eventually start to turn around.

With so much money pouring out of Washington, Obama wants to assure a desperate but skeptical public that he won't tolerate any squandering of that money and that he will be straight about the challenges, relying on easy-to-understand language about the stakes and the solutions.

"He believes it is very important to be honest with the American people about the struggles and the challenges that we face," Gibbs said.

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Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed to this report.