WASHINGTON - Just a year into his presidency and already in need of a political comeback, Barack Obama is trying to regain momentum by focusing on two hot-button problems: joblessness and reining in the Wall Street bankers many blame for the lackluster economy.
This retooling, so early in his term, already has people saying the 44th U.S. president has taken a populist turn, or that he might have to out-Republican the Republicans by focusing the next three years of his four-year term on deficit reduction and business growth.
But labels are not so important.
What is important is that if he is to salvage his presidency, Obama must demonstrate that he is in charge, not the two top Democrats in Congress: liberal House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, according to analysts.
People have been saying we need to hear from Obama. What does he want? And instead, Pelosi and Reid have been providing the answers, said Paul Light of New York University's Center for the Study of Congress.
Last week, after Obama's Democrats suffered a stunning loss of a Senate seat in Massachusetts -- the late liberal icon Edward Kennedy's seat no less -- the country heard directly from Obama.
For example, Obama on Thursday confronted Wall Street banks, unveiling a populist-tinged proposal to limit their financial risk-taking that he blamed for helping to cause the financial crisis.
On Friday, Obama was in blue-collar Elyria, Ohio, a poster child for the bad economy, proclaiming: I want to march forward with you. I hope you're going to stand by me.
He's clearly recalibrating, Light said, adding, I don't know whether it's going to work or not.
When in political hot water, which Obama clearly is, it is not so much the legislative details that must be touted, but the broad themes that successful leaders use to connect with a country during hard times.
Ronald Reagan did it with his It's morning in America campaign ad in 1984. Bill Clinton did it in 1992 with a presidential campaign based on It's the economy, stupid. Obama did it in 2008 with his message of hope and change.
But he quickly lost it after letting Congress take the lead last year on a difficult healthcare bill that is now in shambles and approving a massive catch-all spending bill in February 2009 that many thought was larded with waste.
Obama will have a prime-time opportunity to regain his footing. A message of economic renewal and job creation in a time of double-digit U.S. unemployment is expected to dominate his State of the Union address to Congress on Wednesday.
Hoping to show he can deliver on a key promise of his 2008 presidential campaign -- healthcare reform -- Obama no doubt will underscore how fixing a healthcare system that devours a sixth of the U.S. economy will generate jobs while bringing coverage to the uninsured.
Climate-change legislation, another high priority for the president, may be cast as a jobs creator by encouraging the growth of alternative energy industries in the United States while also staving off the worst effects of global warming.
Obama has not been able to make progress in the Senate with that argument. The House has passed a climate-change bill, but it is bogged down in the Senate.
They wrapped themselves around the axles with details of a climate-change initiative, rather than trying to sell it as something that in the long run might create jobs and help the economy, said Ron Bonjean, who was an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican. Just like healthcare, they got bogged down in the details.
In order to salvage his agenda, Bonjean said Obama must allow Republican ideas into the mix and publicly allow it to happen, allowing Republicans to claim some credit for any legislative accomplishments. He added, I don't think they're (the White House) there yet mentally.
Also unknown is whether Republicans actually are willing to sit down with Obama to break Washington's logjam.
At a news conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked to detail where he was prepared to work with Democrats.
The only things McConnell mentioned were Obama's already announced deployment of more troops to Afghanistan and his focusing on Pakistan as well. Neither of those actions will soothe Americans' worries about the economy.
(Editing by Will Dunham)