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Obama seeks new momentum in pivotal week
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Just a month into his presidency, Barack Obama has had to deal with everything from Cabinet missteps that have strained his "no-drama Obama" image to an economic crisis that seems to worsen by the day.
But with his approval ratings high and his presidential honeymoon far from over, he will seek to regain momentum this week and build on an early flurry of legislative successes, financial initiatives and diplomatic moves.
The centerpiece will be Obama's first address to Congress on Tuesday, when he will try to reassure Americans about what he's doing -- and what else he plans to do -- to rescue the shaky financial system and pull the country out of recession.
He will also lay out his broader agenda, including the goal of revamping health care, something he promised during the presidential campaign but which critics say is unrealistic now given budget pressures from bailout and stimulus measures.
The stakes will be high for Obama when he heads to Capitol Hill for a State of the Union-style speech he said would address "our urgent national priorities." It will be broadcast live at 9 p.m. EST.
"This is a ritual for all new presidents," said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. "But considering the desperate economic situation, you can be sure people are going to be hanging on every word."
Paying especially close attention will be the financial markets, which so far have seemed mostly unimpressed with Obama's economic remedies. U.S. stocks have trended lower since Obama was sworn in on January 20, closing at 6-1/2-year lows on Friday .
While domestic priorities will dominate Obama's speech, he is also likely to touch on foreign affairs as he keeps up efforts to roll back his predecessor's most divisive policies and repair America's image abroad.
He is expected to stress the shift in U.S. military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, underscored by a troop buildup he has ordered to help counter a Taliban resurgence.
Obama could also reassert his offer of direct diplomacy with U.S. foe Iran, a reversal of former President George W. Bush's policy of isolating Tehran over its nuclear ambitions.
Obama's primetime speech before a joint session of Congress will come during a pivotal week for his young presidency.
Topping Monday's agenda: a "Fiscal Responsibility Summit" hosted by Obama, who wants to use the White House event to highlight his pledge of budgetary discipline.
He will then hammer the point home in Tuesday's address.
The intent is partly to counter Republican accusations that the $787 billion economic stimulus package Obama shepherded through the Democratic-controlled Congress earlier this month was larded with wasteful spending.
Then on Thursday, when he outlines a budget for fiscal 2010 swelled by stimulus spending, he will set a goal of cutting the deficit he inherited from Bush by half to $533 billion by the end of his term, a White House official said.
With his speech to Congress providing Obama with his most direct channel to the American people since his inaugural address, he will also take care to set the right tone.
Since taking office, he has largely ditched his campaign talk of "yes, we can" for a more sober message of grim economic times and an outlook for even worse to come.
Reflecting misgivings among some Democrats about Obama's dire warnings, former President Bill Clinton urged him to show more of the hope he promised as a candidate. "I just want the American people to know that he's confident that we are going to get out of this," he told ABC News.
Clark Judge, a former speechwriter for Republican Ronald Reagan, suggested Obama might be using gloom-and-doom language to exaggerate the severity of the crisis as a way to justify a long-held Democratic "wish list" of spending programs.
Obama, who has insisted he is painting a realistic picture, is likely to strike a more optimistic note on Tuesday night, but will continue tempering expectations of quick fixes.
Still open to question is how far he will go during his Capitol Hill visit in reaching out again to Republicans who rejected his stimulus plan. They complain his promise of a new era of bipartisanship in Washington has turned out empty.
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