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Critics: State of Union is time for Obama to deliver

President Barack Obama takes questions during a town

President Barack Obama takes questions during a town hall style meeting in Elyria, Ohio, Friday, Jan. 22, 2010. Credit: AP File

WASHINGTON - Now it's time for President Barack Obama to deliver.

That's a message recession-weary Americans, many of them still fearful for their jobs, are sending Washington in recent elections, sparking a political volatility across the country, several analysts said.

Wednesday night, in his first formal State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress, Obama must address that message, and provide assurances that he has a coherent, workable plan to bring back jobs and boost the economy.

"Now's the time for straight, clear talk and decisive action," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank here.

That includes, Mann said, "explaining and defending his stimulus, financial stabilization and health reform, and the additional steps he proposes to take to rev up jobs."

Wednesday night's nationally televised speech, which gives Obama a platform to reach Americans directly, comes at another crucial juncture in his presidency. As with previous speeches, expectations for his performance are running high.

Here are five issues he must take on:

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Obama must demonstrate he is focused on creating jobs and lowering the 10 percent national unemployment rate.

"Everything is related to pocketbooks. Jobs. The economy. Taxes," said Steven Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena Research Institute poll at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.

In the past week, Obama has highlighted a series of economic initiatives: a populist attack on big banks, programs to provide security to the middle class, plans to create jobs and a three-year freeze on discretionary spending to reduce the deficit.

Wednesday night, Obama must outline these measures and convince viewers he can actually pass them in a Congress of skittish Democrats and a steadfast GOP opposition.

A clear path ahead

Obama needs to clarify his message about the way ahead.

Some Democrats are urging Obama to inspire, but also to stick to a practical agenda - big ideas with small, doable programs.

Right now, many people are confused, said Jeffrey Cohen, a political scientist at Fordham University in the Bronx.

Obama is standing by Wall Street figures he put in charge of overseeing Wall Street, for instance, as he launches a populist salvo at big banks, Cohen said.

"Why doesn't he have a consistent message?" he said. "What are his policies?"

Given the GOP opposition and aggressive attacks on Obama's programs, Mann said, "It is not at all clear that he can succeed in resolving the tensions and avoiding sending mixed signals."

To counter that problem, New York Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said, Obama should avoid lofty ideas and offer specifics that people can grasp: "It's called tangible, tangible, tangible."

Redirect anger

Obama rode the economic crisis and populist anger to the White House. But in the past year, he conceded in recent interviews, he has appeared to lose touch.

He retains personal popularity, but his positives are slipping and his negatives are growing.

Many of those turning away from Obama, pollsters say, are the same white, working-class people he had trouble connecting with during the early part of his presidential campaign.

But Obama also is angering supporters on the left over what they see as his failure to change how Washington works, another shortcoming Obama recently conceded.

"He's got to figure out," Sheinkopf said, "how to make himself believable."

Sell year one

As Obama lays out what he hopes to accomplish in his second year, he also must make sure he doesn't lose the battle with his critics and Republicans over defining what he did during his first year.

That means defending the bailout of Wall Street and the automakers, the $787 billion stimulus package and his expansion of the war in Afghanistan, said a New York Democratic Party official.

It also means explaining what happened to his signature legislation - the stalled measure to restructure the nation's health care system - and what he plans to do about it.

Platform to win

Wednesday night, Democrats and Republicans will be watching closely for how Obama sets up his policies and politics for the midterm elections on Nov. 2.

Will he tack toward the middle or move to the left? Will he embrace Congress or move away from it? Will he appeal to his base or to independents?

With his speech, Obama will provide his party - and his opponents - a political road map and a platform for what looks to be a tough election year for Congressional Democrats.

>> TALK ABOUT IT: Join Dan Janison for a live chat following tonight's State of the Union address.

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