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After pleading his case, where does Obama go now?

From Ed Henry, CNN senior White House correspondent
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Obama makes his case
  • In State of the Union speech, Obama calls for action on jobs, transparency in budget
  • He asks Congress to push ahead with health reform bill despite setbacks
  • Focus on economy and bipartisanship should appeal to independents, expert says

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama acknowledged Wednesday night that he's faced political setbacks during his first year in office.

Obama's first State of the Union speech was the pivot his critics believe he should have made months ago. Health care is now on the back burner, and the pain of a lingering economic recession is front and center.

"I realize that for every success story, there are other stories of men and women who wake up with the anguish of not knowing where their next paycheck will come from," Obama said. "That is why jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010, and that's why I'm calling for a new jobs bill tonight."

His speech is likely to play well with independent voters, whose support of Obama has waned since helping him get elected, one expert on independent voters said.

"Just the speech's two main themes -- focus on the economy and attacks against kind of the bitter partisanship we still see in Washington -- those are the two main themes independents wanted to hear," said John Avlon, author of "Independent Nation." "Continuity from the '08 campaign, that's what independents wanted, and I think he connected."

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, most Americans wanted the president to use Wednesday night's speech to move his administration in a new direction.

Seven out of 10 said they would like to see the president put forward proposals that would move his administration in a new direction this year, with 28 percent saying they'd like to hear Obama address the same goals and priorities he had in his first year in office.

The topic that has consumed most of his presidency -- health care reform -- became just a short plea in a nearly 70-minute State of the Union address.

"Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done."

With Republicans in lockstep against the reform bill in Congress, the future of the hot-button issue became more muddled with the Republicans' historic Senate win in Massachusetts -- which stripped Democrats of their 60-vote Senate supermajority and gave Republicans enough votes to block most legislation in the chamber.

Democrats, who were in the process of combining previously passed House and Senate bills at the time of the Massachusetts special election, have been struggling since to come up with a new strategy.

The president also took his share of the blame for not explaining the issue clearly enough, adopting a self-deprecating tone about his political wounds.

"By now, it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics," Obama said.

Democratic leaders are now looking at ways to move the reform bill forward, despite losing their 60-seat filibuster-proof majority.

The president defended last year's work, especially the stimulus package. But he was also candid and almost wistful about promises unkept.

"I campaigned on the promise of change. Change we can believe in, the slogan went," he said. "And right now I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change, or that I can deliver it. But remember this: I never suggested that change would be easy or that I could do it alone."

Obama also touched on earmark reform, and threatened to use his first veto if spending gets too high. But the president has a spotty record on that controversial issue.

Before a joint session of Congress in 2009, Obama said the recovery act was passed free of earmarks. But shortly after, House Democrats voted on and passed a budget with nearly 9,000 earmarks, worth around $7.7 billion.

The White House said at the time that there was no contradiction.

And now as Obama gets ready to push forth his 2011 budget, he is promising to institute earmark transparency.

Continuing a populist theme, Obama called for requiring all congressional earmarks to be posted on a public Web site before a vote "so that the American people can see how their money is being spent."

After a year of increasing polarization in Washington, Obama challenged Republicans to meet him halfway, suggesting that just saying no to Democrats isn't enough -- Republicans should offer alternatives.

Avlon said that is exactly what independents want to see.

"The culture of Washington is addicted to division, and that's the problem. And President Obama is saying, look, I'm a leader -- it's a leader's job to change culture. Change doesn't happen overnight."

He added that independents believe that Obama campaigned on a new era of post-partisanship -- though Congressional Democrats have taken a partisan push on legislation. Top examples: passing the economic stimulus plan with only two Republicans on board, and passing Obama's budget strictly on party lines.

CNN political producer Ed Hornick contributed to this story.

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