By JIM KUHNHENN, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — The American public will get a competing mix of rhetoric and imagery in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, a speech that offers a heavy dose on the economy even as it plays out against a visual backdrop dominated by the current national debate over guns.
With the economy still trying to find its footing and with millions still out of work, Obama will make a case for measures and proposals that he says will boost job creation and put the economy on a more upward trajectory. Obama's emphasis underscores a White House recognition that while the president seeks to expand his agenda and build a second-term legacy, the economy remains a major public preoccupation.
But in the galleries above the rostrum of the House of Representatives where Obama will speak, many of the faces looking down on him will be those of Americans thrust into the politics of gun violence.
First lady Michelle Obama will sit with the parents of a Chicago teenager shot and killed just days after she performed at the president's inauguration. Twenty-two House members have invited people affected by gun violence, according to Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who pushed the effort. And Republican Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas says he's invited rocker Ted Nugent, a long-time gun control opponent who last year said he would end up "dead or in jail" if Obama won re-election.
That confluence of message and symbolism illustrates where Obama is in his presidency following his re-election.
The economic blueprint he will discuss will have many of the elements Americans have heard before, with its embrace of manufacturing, energy development and education. And in that sense it is a reminder of what was unfulfilled at the end of Obama's first term. But the tragic murders of 26 people at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December altered the president's agenda, pushing guns onto a to-do list that already included a new push for an overhaul of immigration law.
As the president addresses gun violence, the cameras are sure to pan the faces in the crowd inside the House chamber, each with a story meant to influence the debate. Obama has proposed a ban on certain weapons and on high-capacity ammunition magazines. He has also called for broader, universal background checks on gun purchasers, a proposal that stands a better chance politically.
But White House aides say the economy is still Obama's central theme.
"You've seen the president act aggressively on comprehensive immigration reform. You've seen the president put forward a series of comprehensive proposals to reduce gun violence in this country in the recent weeks," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. "These are important priorities of the president and of the nation. But what remains his No. 1 priority is what it has been since he took office, which is to get this economy growing, get it creating jobs, strengthening the middle class and expanding the middle class – allowing those who seek and aspire to the middle class to get there, giving them the tools to do that."
Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said "the president has always believed that our country is strongest when we build from the middle out, not from the top down."
She said in an interview that the president's "confidence has grown" over the past four years and he is optimistic that his programs can be approved.
Jarrett said Obama remains interested in a deal with Republicans to avoid automatic budget cuts on March 1 and revealed that he and House Speaker John Boehner had been "just moments apart" from striking a large-scale agreement on taxes and spending at the end of last year, but that the Ohio Republican couldn't sell it to his party's House caucus.
The renewed emphasis on job creation will dominate the message that Obama will take to the road in the days after his speech, pushing his economic recovery proposals during stops in North Carolina, Georgia and his hometown of Chicago. Obama is expected to reiterate his calls for revitalizing the manufacturing sector; he pledged during his campaign that he would create 1 million new manufacturing jobs during his second term. Following a sluggish 2012, manufacturing grew at a faster pace last month, driven by an increase in new orders and more hiring at factories.
His call for measures that prod the economy will play out as he presses Congress to avoid deep spending cuts that are scheduled to begin automatically on March 1. Obama wants instead a mix of tax revenue and cuts in spending that he has promoted as a "balanced" approach to easing federal deficits.
Obama has called for raising more revenue through ending tax breaks and closing loopholes, but he has not detailed a list of targets. He and his aides often mention as examples of unnecessary tax breaks a benefit for owners of private jets and tax subsidies for oil and gas companies. Such measures are modest, however. Ending the corporate plane and oil and gas breaks would generate about $43 billion in revenue over 10 years.
That appeal for new revenue is getting stiff-armed by Republicans, who reluctantly agreed at the start of the year to increase tax rates on the wealthiest Americans in exchange for extending Bush-era tax rates for the rest of taxpayers.
"He's gotten all the revenue he's going to get," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday. "Been there, done that."
With Republicans in control of the House and exerting influence in the Senate, Obama intends to employ all the tools at his disposal in an effort to win over the public to put pressure on Congress.
The White House and Obama's allies are launching simultaneous social media, public outreach and fundraising campaigns tied to his State of the Union address. Those efforts were successful in his re-election campaign and Obama aides believe they could be as effective in pushing policies as they were in pushing his candidacy.
"He's got to strike now," said presidential historian Allan Lichtman of American University, who believes the economy, the environment and long-term changes in federal entitlements are key to Obama's legacy. "Next year he won't have the ear of the public in the same way he has this time."
Jarrett appeared Tuesday morning on "CBS This Morning" and NBC's "Today" show.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.
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