Editor's note: Gloria Borger is chief political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."
Washington (CNN) -- Ever heard of a State of the Union speech in September?
Um, not usually. That is, except for tonight. The president called for the session—and Republicans couldn't figure out a way out of it, so they're attending, reluctantly. No Democrat-sits-with-a-GOP-buddy system this time; some Republicans have even threatened to boycott.
To hear the White House folks explain it, the president called for the session because of the timeliness of the matter at hand—job creation. "There's a great sense of urgency and the president needs to talk to the American people," a senior White House adviser tells me predictably enough. But here's the telling nugget: "He will challenge the Congress and there is no greater or attention-focusing event" than a joint session.
In other words, game on.
So here's the White House plan: Obama looks leaderly. He lays down his plan which includes some things the GOP has agreed to in the past—such as extension of the payroll tax cut. It's a Goldilocks approach to stimulus—not too big, not too small—and the president seems reasonable. And then, says a senior White House adviser, "when they (the Republicans) start picking and choosing, they're going to have to tell the American people why." And the result, he predicts, is, well, predictable: The voters will want to know why.
We get it. This is a fight to convince the American people that the president is doing something, cares about your plight and is trying to be reasonable. That's what the American people want.
And it's also easy to understand why the president is taking aim at the Congress: They're the only group in town more unpopular than he is. The CNN/ORC poll shows congressional approval at 14%. By comparison, the president's meager 45% approval rating looks gargantuan. "The Republicans haven't moved the ball at all," says another senior White House adviser. "We have our struggles, but look at them."
It all sounds so simple for the White House: Pick on the people the public dislikes more than they dislike you. Harry Truman is the model here: Run after the do-nothing Congress. And win.
Except that there are some real risks here. The president, in calling for a joint session, raises expectations about what he will say and propose. If he ends up offering a prosaic agenda, there could be a real mismatch between the venue and the ideas. If that's the case, he looks blatantly political. If you're going to build up a big speech, why not put something big—like his plans for deficit reduction—on the table? Isn't that just as important?
Then there's this: leadership. If Obama proposes to do something, the public wants to see that he has the juice to get it done. They're not worried that the GOP controls the House right now or that the Senate needs 60 votes to get anything passed. So if he fails, they're not just going to blame the Republicans.
Here's the bad data for Obama: When he was inaugurated, 70% of the country believed he had strong leadership qualities. Last month, according to the Wall street Journal/NBC poll, only 42% of the public felt that way. That's scary low for a president. Not only that, the president's leadership number is even down 12 points from last May. What does that tell us? "The debt ceiling fight hurt everyone involved," says a White House aide. "We have some ground to make up."
Indeed they do. Because right now, the public is trying to figure out if it wants to re-hire Barack Obama. Maybe the year 1980 is the analogy here: Jimmy Carter wasn't popular and voters were looking for a reasonable alternative. Eventually, they landed on Ronald Reagan, and the rest is history. The Democrats are down to hoping that the Republicans nominate someone who can't seal the deal the way Reagan did.
Right now, though, Obama's main opponent is himself. He needs to be the incumbent with a record of leadership to run on. It's not about the cranky Republicans who challenge everything he does. Or Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, each of whom have their own flaws. It's about Obama's flaws and Obama's ability to make Washington work.
If he can't show progress, the race becomes exactly what the GOP wants: an Obama vs. Obama matchup. That's the fight they can't lose.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.