Newswise — President Barack Obama’s Tuesday night State of the Union address comes at a critical moment in his presidency and could set the tone in Washington for years to come, says a presidential historian at the University of Indianapolis.

This won’t be the first State of the Union delivered amid economic woes and stiff partisan opposition, Associate Professor Edward “Ted” Frantz says. Previous examples include Bill Clinton in 1995, Ronald Reagan in 1983 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1935.

“The fundamental challenge for Roosevelt was getting business interests to trust him, and they never did,” Frantz says. In that case, however, Roosevelt was able to continue his New Deal economic reforms with the help of large Democratic majorities in Congress, an advantage Obama does not have.

Reagan’s popularity was near its all-time low at the midpoint of his first term, but rather than changing course, Frantz says, he stuck with his conservative policies and was able to take credit for a subsequent economic recovery.

The Clinton analogy may be the most similar to Obama’s situation, Frantz said. After an unpopular attempt at healthcare reform, Clinton shifted to the political center and co-opted the Republicans’ key issues. Likewise, Obama has made clear that job creation will be the focus of his Tuesday address and his agenda for the year. The president also has signaled a shift by replacing key staffers and advisers, in some cases with veterans of the Clinton administration.

“Since he’s surrounded himself with so many Clinton people, we’ll probably see repeated variations of ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’” Frantz says. “And if he convinces people the economy is turning around, that will be the key for him.”

Although 2010 was a rough year for Obama, Frantz notes, the past two months show how quickly fortunes can change. After the much-discussed “shellacking” in the midterm congressional elections, Obama squeezed a series of key initiatives through Congress and has seen his popularity rise amid signs of economic recovery and a well-received speech in response to the recent Arizona shootings.

With no strong liberal voices in the Democratic Party right now, Obama faces little pressure from his left. If he succeeds Tuesday in recasting himself as a pragmatic centrist, Republicans will face more risk than gain in opposing his initiatives, and – if recent rhetoric can be believed – he could ride a wave of bipartisan cooperation all the way to re-election.

“The future still holds most of what we’ll remember about Obama, good or bad,” Frantz says.

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