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Obama Gets Second Chance to Stress Jobs Focus at State of the Union

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President Obama visits the birthplace of General Electric Jan. 21 in Schenectady, N.Y.AP

President Obama declared in his last State of the Union address that jobs would be his "number one focus" in 2010. 

Consider this year's address Take 2. 

With unemployment still hovering above 9 percent, the president will undoubtedly use his speech Tuesday to outline a revamped gameplan for tackling the country's economic problems. White House senior adviser David Plouffe, the president's former campaign chief, said as much Friday in an e-mail announcing Obama will discuss how to "create jobs today" and "make America more competitive tomorrow." 

The question is how effective Obama will be in convincing the public he's laser-focused on the issue this time. The pressure is on as the president tries to burnish his new image as a pragmatic, reach-across-the-aisle, business-friendly centrist. It's the style of leadership he's endeavored to project since his party got trounced in the midterm congressional elections. He showed it during the lame-duck session; he showed it again during his address last week honoring the victims of the Tucson shooting. 

But Tuesday's speech will give the president an unmatched opportunity to set the tone before the recent calls for civility give way to the raw politics of the 2012 presidential campaign. 

And it starts with jobs. 

"We're done throwing down gauntlets and drawing lines in the sand. ... This has got to be a kinder, gentler address," GOP pollster Adam Geller said. 

Geller said the president should plan on extending an "olive branch" to Republican leaders in the House whom he'll be dealing with at least for the next two years. He said Obama should offer to work on a new jobs-creation plan with the GOP, one that focuses both on benefits for the unemployed and most importantly hiring incentives for the private sector. 

Obama's base is grumbling at the prospect of a more conciliatory president. But even if he doesn't make a grand gesture to Republicans, he's been hard at work sending a signal to the Washington-wary business community that he wants to work out the kinks in their relationship. 

His latest public event was a stop in Schenectady, N.Y., on Friday to visit a General Electric plant. Aside from tapping GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Obama also chose former Commerce Secretary and JP Morgan Chase executive William Daley as his new chief of staff and ex-Goldman Sachs adviser Gene Sperling as the leader of his National Economic Council. 

The business community gestures come as Obama simultaneously positions himself for the 2012 presidential campaign. He plans to open his campaign office in Chicago by the end of March and has been reshuffling staff and advisers at a dizzying pace, bringing in Plouffe while soon sending senior adviser David Axelrod and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to work on his campaign. 

Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said the State of the Union is part of this strategy. 

"The tone for the year can be set on Tuesday night," she said. "It's no question the first speech of the 2012 campaign." 

As he did in Tucson, Marsh urged the president to stay "above the fray." She said a jobs-centered speech is surely in order but that the president will also have to appeal to those vital independent voters with a strong message about fiscal responsibility. With a critical vote coming up on whether to raise the country's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, the public is once again attuned to the consequences of a chronically unbalanced budget. 

"What they really care about is deficit reduction," Marsh said of independents. 

Budget hawk Paul Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin, is set to deliver the Republican response Tuesday night, putting even more pressure on Obama to move the ball forward on a commitment to closing the deficit. 

Aside from that, the president may be compelled to address the GOP campaign to repeal the health care law. The repeal passed the House this week, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he'll sideline it in the Senate and Obama would never sign such a bill. Geller said he'd advise Obama to avoid the issue entirely on Tuesday, but speculated that the president would chide the GOP anyway. 

The Afghanistan war, the global threat of terrorism, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," border security and other topics are also ripe for discussion in Obama's speech. In a plus for the president, the audience is making an overt effort to be tame and bipartisan, with several lawmakers so far agreeing to sit with a member of the opposite party on Tuesday. 

But partisanship avoided during the State of the Union address will surely be made up for on the sidelines. Marsh said potential 2012 candidates on the Republican side will pounce on the speech. 

Democrats are likewise busy ahead of Tuesday drawing a contrast between a jobs-focused president and a Republican-led House allegedly not living up to its promises. 

"Unfortunately, since the new GOP majority took over the House, they have done nothing to help put Americans back to work," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a written statement Friday.

Though Obama's approval rating has edged up in recent polls, other surveys suggest his popularity is tenuous and that he'll have to make a big impression on the jobs front soon.

A Fox News poll out Friday showed nine in 10 voters view the economy negatively. Just 28 percent think his administration's policies have helped the economy. Thirty-two percent say those policies have hurt, while 37 percent say they've had no effect. 

The poll of 900 registered voters was taken Jan. 18-19. It had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.