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Obama makes speech tonight; bipartisan efforts scrutinized

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By Emily Ngo

President Barack Obama tonight delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress, where Republicans are wondering whether his bipartisan efforts will help dig the country out of its deepening recession.

The televised, State of the Union-style speech will tackle “the economy, the economy, the economy, because that’s what’s on people’s minds,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “He sees the economy as almost a wartime issue, and he’s the commander in chief for the economy.”

Obama’s momentum and his 63 percent approval rating are tied to public confidence in his $787 billion economic stimulus, experts said. His toughest task is to reassure Americans his measures will work.

“A lot of it is still psychological; a lot of the public thinks it’s not worth it,” said Joseph Mercurio, a New York-based political consultant. “It’s a hard sell.”

Especially to conservatives, the administration’s harshest critics and most essential allies.The stimulus package passed in the House with no Republican support.

Several GOP governors, including South Carolina’s Mark Sanford and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, said they might reject part of the stimulus funds. The plan wastes money and could ultimately hurt more than help, they insisted. (Others, like Florida’s Charlie Crist and California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, said they would support the president.)

“It would be like spending a dollar to make a dime,” Jindal said on “Meet the Press.”

Earlier this month, New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, who was to be a Republican addition to the Cabinet, dropped his bid for Commerce secretary over irreconcilable differences. Additionally, the Republican National Committee has issued a statement saying the Obama’s first month was about “wasteful spending, failed bipartisanship and questionable ethics.”

“This bipartisan thing is not working out so well,” said Kevin Wardally, a government affairs expert with Bill Lynch Associates. “I don’t think he needs to go overboard, but it’s great that he believes it’s a realistic goal.”

James Morone, an authority on bipartisan relations at Brown University, also questions the success of Obama’s olive branch, but said the president is expected to reiterate his message of cooperation tonight.

“He’ll say, ‘Let’s begin by being respectful and why don’t you come to me with your ideas, but don’t give me the same old ideas you had for George Bush,’ ” said Morone, author of “Hellfire Nation.”

Experts said they expect no surprise announcements in tonight’s address, which begins at 9 p.m., but said health care reform and fighting in Afghanistan will also likely be mentioned, experts said.

On Thursday, Obama will outline his budget for the fiscal year 2010, which begins in October 1. He wants to halve the $1.3 trillion deficit by the end of his first term, and will scale back Iraq war spending and increase taxes on the nation’s wealthiest, experts said.

For goals this ambitious, Obama will need the support of Republicans – and not just the few votes required to break Senate filibuster. Experts predict his attempts at bringing the parties together are only beginning.

“If you’re trying to flip the page, like Reagan did, like Roosevelt did,” Morone said. “You have to appear above partisanship and make it part of something that’s patriotic.”

Jindal is scheduled to rebut Obama’s address tonight on behalf of the Republicans.

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