Hop­ing the pres­i­dent will drop them a line

Lob­by­ists vie for no­tice in the State of the Union


It has been a fre­netic fewweeks for the coun­try’s lead­ing oil in­dus­try group: Lob­by­ists for the Amer­i­can Petroleum In­sti­tute have re­peat­edly phoned the White House, ca­joled agency higher-ups, even bought big news­pa­per ads tout­ing the virtues of oil and nat­u­ral gas.

The goal of all this ac­tiv­ity isn’t to win sup­port for a cru­cial piece of leg­is­la­tion in Congress, but some­thing much nar­rower— per­suad­ing Pres­i­dent Obama to say some­thing, any­thing, com­pli­men­tary about Big Oil in his State of the Union ad­dress Tues­day night.

Each Jan­uary, in­dus­tries and in­ter­est groups of all kinds badger the White House with re­quests for a men­tion in the speech, which sets the po­lit­i­cal agenda in Washington for the year. Even a brief call-out from the pres­i­dent can be an im­por­tant ad­van­tage in the con­test for in­creas­ingly scarce fed­eral dol­lars.

With so much com­pe­ti­tion, some­times the ef­fort to get a line in the speech falls short, said Jack Ger­ard, API’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive. But “some­times you are pleas­antly sur­prised. So we con­tinue to push, push, push, push.”

This year, with the pres­i­dent far more con­stricted in what he can re­al­is­ti­cally prom­ise, pleas­ant

sur­prises may be es­pe­cially hard to come by.

Obama will de­liver his speech be­fore a Congress with fewer Demo­cratic faces, and one in which both par­ties fear the reper­cus­sions of the nation’s slug­gish econ­omy, high un­em­ploy­ment rate and ris­ing debt. The ad­dress won’t fea­ture the long list of costly give­aways fa­mil­iar in good times. In­stead, the speech — like last year’s — will cen­ter largely on Obama’s eco­nomic plans.

“My prin­ci­pal fo­cus . . . is go­ing to be mak­ing sure that we are com­pet­i­tive, that we are grow­ing, and we are cre­at­ing jobs,” Obama said in a pre­view video of the speech sent to sup­port­ers Satur­day. He de­clared the deficit an­other pri­or­ity, call­ing on Washington to “re­form govern­ment so that it’s leaner and smarter for the 21st cen­tury.”

He did not ex­plain in the video how he would meet those goals. Peo­ple briefed on the speech said Obama will look to in­vest in trans­porta­tion and the nation’s ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture as one way to cre­ate jobs and spur the econ­omy.

Obama’s an­nounce­ment Fri­day that Gen­eral Elec­tric chief ex­ec­u­tive Jef­frey Im melt will head a new panel of out­side eco­nomic ad­vis­ers gives Obama the chance to talk Tues­day about his ef­forts to work with cor­po­rate lead­ers as he looks for­ways to cur­tail un-em­ploy­ment.

The pres­i­dent will also de­fend his health-care over­haul, now un­der at­tack by Repub­li­cans in Congress, and will re­state his com­mit­ment to reg­u­lat­ing Wall Street.

And though the speech is un­likely to be heavy on for­eign pol­icy — in the past Obama has saved that for his an­nual ad­dress to the United Na­tions — he will take time to out­line his most im­por­tant goals abroad.

In re­cent months, Obama has of­ten spo­ken of his for­eign pol­icy in terms of how it af­fects the U.S econ­omy. Af­ter suc­cess­fully ne­go­ti­at­ing a free-trade agree­ment with South Korea last year, he is likely to call on Congress to rat­ify it quickly. La­bor unions have gen­er­ally op­posed the treaty, fear­ing it will re­sult in U.S. jobs be­ing moved over­seas. But Obama has ar­gued that tap­ping into ris­ing mid­dle-class mar­kets abroad is es­sen­tial to in­creas­ing U.S. trade and cre­at­ing jobs at home.

In dis­cussing for­eign pol­icy more broadly, he is ex­pected to un­der­score the year-end dead­line for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq, more than seven years af­ter the in­va­sion. In Afghanistan, where the war is in its 10th year, Obama will draw at­ten­tion to the July dead­line he has set for the start of troop with­drawals, a process sched­uled to un­fold through 2014 at a pace to be de­ter­mined by con­di­tions on the ground.

The State of the Union is of­ten crit­i­cized for be­ing too long and bloated with prizes for var­i­ous con­stituen­cies. But within Washington, it serves to make the pres­i­dent’s pri­or­i­ties known and is viewed as the “op­er­at­ing man­ual for the year,” said John Podesta, who served as chief of staff in the Clin­ton White House and now heads the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress.

Obama’s pre­de­ces­sors of­ten used the run-up to the speech to make news. Of­fi­cials in the Bush and Clin­ton White Houses would start leak­ing de­tails about ini­tia­tives weeks in ad­vance in hopes of grab­bing sev­eral days’ worth of chat­ter.

But the Obama White House has re­mained se­cre­tive about the speech, of­fer­ing al­lies and in­ter­est groups few in­sights into what the pres­i­dent will say. In­part, ad­vis­ers said that was be­cause the speech wasn’t yet fin­ished. In his video, Obama said he was “still work­ing on it.”

Af­ter Novem­ber’s bruis­ing midterm elec­tions, the White House saw the State of the Union as a chance for the pres­i­dent to re­assert his author­ity and shore up his po­lit­i­cal stand­ing. But af­ter nav­i­gat­ing a suc­cess­ful lame-duck ses­sion of Congress in De­cem­ber, reshuf­fling his staff and de­liv­er­ing a well-re­ceived speech at the me­mo­rial ser­vice for the vic­tims of the shoot­ings in Tuc­son ear­lier this month, Obama is now in a stronger po­si­tion po­lit­i­cally than his ad­vis­ers had an­tic­i­pated.

The theme of po­lit­i­cal co­op­er­a­tion has res­onated in the af­ter­math of the Tuc­son tragedy, which set off a na­tional de­bate about the nation’s di­vi­sive po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. Obama is ex­pected to touch on ways in which Democrats and Repub­li­cans might work to­gether.

The gen­eral mood against po­lit­i­cal com­bat has led some ad­vo­cates for con­tro­ver­sial is­sues to pull back their ef­forts. Abor­tion rights groups, con­vinced that the rest of his agenda would drown out their ap­peals, have opted not to lobby the White House for a plug in the speech.

But other in­ter­est groups see an op­por­tu­nity to frame their ap­peals in friendly — and es­pe­cially job-friendly— terms.

In its re­quests for a men­tion in the speech, API has ar­gued that the in­dus­try em­ploys mil­lions of work­ers — and could hire even more un­der the right cir­cum­stances. The group is urg­ing law­mak­ers and the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­peal new re­stric­tions on green­house gas emis­sions and undo new lim­its on off­shore drilling, and a pres­i­den­tial en­dorse­ment of its job-cre­at­ing po­ten­tial could help bol­ster the in­dus­try’s ef­forts.

Like­wise, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists hop­ing for Obama to talk about the Clean Air Act in the speech want the pres­i­dent to back green en­ergy ini­tia­tives, not fos­sil fuel, as the path to job growth.

“I sus­pect there’s lots of com­pe­ti­tion for air time,” said Paul Billings of the Amer­i­can Lung As­so­ci­a­tion. His was one of sev­eral ad­vo­cacy groups that par­tic­i­pated in a con­fer­ence call last week with a White House of­fi­cial in which they made the case for in­clu­sion in the speech. “But there’s also a lot of at­ten­tion to the Clean Air Act by those who want to weaken, de­lay or re­peal all or part of the act. That’s why we’re en­cour­ag­ing the pres­i­dent to speak out.”

For Obama, one chal­lenge Tues­day will be to build on the suc­cess of his speech in Tuc­son, in which he sought to bring the coun­try to­gether. “It’s a dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sion and doesn’t need to be the same tone, but it can’t be starkly dif­fer­ent, ei­ther,” Podesta said. “Peo­ple will be judg­ing the speech on the ba­sis of his fi­nal call for ci­vil­ity.”


Pres­i­dent Obama, re­turn­ing to the White­House from a trip to Up­state New York on Fri­day, said in a pre­view video sent to sup­port­ers that he was “still work­ing” on his State of the Union ad­dress.

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