Obama to strike defiant tone with Republicans in big speech

By Steve Holland WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will strike a defiant tone for dealing with the new Republican-led Congress when he addresses Americans next week in his State of the Union speech, laying out areas for potential compromise but ceding little ground to his opponents. Obama's speech at 9 p.m. EST next Tuesday will be the clearest statement yet of his vision for his final two years in office, with both houses of Congress controlled by Republicans for the first time since he took power six years ago. Senior administration officials said Obama will offer an optimistic view of the country, with the U.S. economy stronger that at any point in his presidency, and will say that improving the plight of the middle class is possible if both sides work together. But much like a White House meeting Obama held on Tuesday with congressional leaders, he is not expected to offer major concessions, in keeping with his pledge to act where he can on his own through executive actions and identify areas where the two sides can work together. "They're going to pass bills that we don't like and we're going to take action that they don't like, but that shouldn't prevent us from working in the areas where we can work together," said a senior administration official. In a departure from previous run-ups to the annual State of the Union address, Obama has rolled out key proposals from his speech early to draw more attention to them. His goals include trying to seal agreements on tax reform and trade, protecting his signature healthcare law from being gutted by Republicans and lifting middle-class incomes. On foreign policy, Obama will offer a stay-the-course message, using last week's Paris attacks to illustrate the need to press on against violent extremists. Obama is expected to make a robust case for his foreign policy of confronting extremist groups without committing large numbers of U.S. ground troops and for seeking to use diplomacy to resolve the longrunning dispute with Iran over its nuclear program. A climate change deal with China and a reversal of decades of trying to isolate Cuba are other examples of what he may cite as examples of U.S. progress on longtime problems. The businesslike tone reflects the style of a president who has two years left in office and who feels he has most of this year left to achieve progress on his agenda before the country turns its attention to the fight to replace him in 2016. LESS CHARM, MORE SUBSTANCE It's a turnabout from two years ago after his re-election, when Obama launched a charm offensive with key Republican lawmakers to try to reach mutual understanding and seek compromises. That effort went nowhere and based on lessons learned, no repeat performance is anticipated, much to the chagrin of lawmakers who feel Obama has neglected them. "We're focused a little less on the charm offensive and more on the substance," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Rather than retreating into a protective crouch after the major Democratic election losses last November that gave Republicans full control of Congress, Obama has instead seemed liberated and energized. Aides say this reflects his delight that the U.S. economy has finally rebounded from a long slump. Examples of his jaunty mood are plentiful. Last week in Clinton, Tennessee, Obama couldn't resist a joke about a former president. "I understand I am the first president, sitting president, to visit Clinton. You'd think Bill would have come down here. Missed opportunity. Let me tell you, if there's an Obama, Tennessee, I'm going," he chuckled. In response to the Republican surge, Obama has refused to cede turf. He bypassed Congress to relax U.S. immigration policy on his own and sealed a climate change agreement with China. He has threatened to veto key parts of the Republican agenda if it gets passed in Congress. "In a way he has a little bit of wind to his back because of the economy and I wouldn't be surprised if the White House tries to use that pointedly," said presidential historian Thomas Alan Schwartz of Vanderbilt University. (Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by John Whitesides and Frances Kerry)