Can Obama Get His Mojo Back?

On the eve of President Obama’s first State of the Union address, Democrats are asking: Can he get his mojo back?

The improbable Democratic loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat last week has sent the party into paroxysms of self-doubt. The White House didn’t see Massachusetts coming and has turned to 2008 campaign mastermind David Plouffe to ramp up his role in party strategy for the fall midterms. Healthcare reform hangs in the balance.

Senior political adviser David Axelrod told Politico that the president will show a “feisty” side in his speech Wednesday night, but that there’s no need to reinvent his message.

There is, however, likely to be a reordering of his message. Forget the usual laundry list of initiatives, a State of the Union staple. Mr. Obama is expected to use his time before a joint session of Congress – and American TV viewers – emphasizing that he hears the public’s concerns about jobs and the economy and is on the case.

Obama’s New Message

On Monday, Obama unveiled five initiatives aimed at helping the middle class – from a doubling of the child tax credit to support for families caring for elderly relatives.

Does the turn toward the economy spell the end of an unpopular healthcare reform? Not at all. In his remarks announcing the initiatives of the Middle Class Task Force, Obama laid out what is expected to be a central theme of his State of the Union: that healthcare, energy, and financial reform all fit under the larger umbrella of economic revival and job creation.

“Joe and I are going to keep on fighting for what matters to middle-class families,” Obama said, with Vice President Joe Biden at his side.

He then expanded on what he meant: “An education that gives our kids a chance in life; new, clean energy economy that generates the good jobs of the future; meaningful financial reform that protect consumers; and health reform that prohibits the worst practices of the insurance industry and restores some stability and peace of mind for middle-class families.”

Healthcare Reform: A Distraction?

There’s a danger that every day the Democrats keep trying to pass some version of healthcare reform, the message of “jobs, jobs, jobs” will be diluted. But at this point, Obama faces only less-than-ideal choices.

If he gives up on healthcare reform, he looks like a failure – and gets no political points in the process. If he presses ahead and gets something, even just a few of the most popular features of the larger reform that was in the works, he can declare victory and move on.

“Why not at least have something to deliver to people after a year?” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “If he doesn’t, he’ll have the same criticism, the same opponents, the same arguments about him being a socialist and big-government liberal, but he won’t have any of the benefit.”

In addition, if he fails on healthcare, it will be harder to pass the next program, Mr. Zelizer adds. His supporters won’t trust him, and the Republicans will be emboldened. “Psychologically for the administration, they need to see that they can pass something,” he says. “It’s like scoring the first touchdown in a football game.”