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Obama in major Congress speech

WASHINGTON, Feb 24 – President Barack Obama was set on Tuesday to use the grand political stage of his debut address to Congress to counsel a nation gripped by economic fear and to showcase his ambitious agenda.

Five weeks into an administration born amid the worst financial tumult since the 1930s, Obama will grasp the unique political megaphone reserved for presidents to speak directly to Americans in the crucial televised speech.

Often, the pageantry of an address to a joint sitting of the House of Representatives and the Senate is the first real test of a rookie president, offering a chance to lay out fresh programs and to mint a political philosophy.

But with the economic storm swirling, Obama has already driven a $787 billion stimulus plan through Congress, unveiled a $275 billion foreclosure plan and tried, so far unsuccessfully, to steady the banking industry.

Watched by his cabinet, top US military commanders, Supreme Court justices and lawmakers, Obama will step up to the lectern in the House at 0200 GMT for the most important speech of his presidency so far.

He will ride into the evening on a wave of popular support, despite a daily diet of devastating economic news.

Sixty-eight percent of those asked in a Washington Post/ABC News poll out on Monday approved of Obama’s job performance and 60 percent were happy with the way he is dealing with the economy.

A New York Times/CBS News poll out Tuesday showed Obama had a 63 percent approval rating, and more than 75 percent said they were optimistic about the next four years with him as president.

Obama’s audience on Tuesday will be diverse, at home and abroad.

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Millions of Americans tuning in will have lost their jobs or seen pensions and savings slashed: 55 percent of those surveyed in the NYT/CBS poll said they can just make ends meet, while more than 60 percent said they worried a member of their household could lose their job in the next year.

Investors in traumatized US markets – which have slumped to the lowest depths for more than a decade – are desperate for new direction.

Overseas, US foes like Iran and North Korea will sift through Obama’s words for diplomatic signals, while US allies will follow emerging policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Asia.

After weeks of delivering grim economic warnings, Obama is also under pressure to rekindle the hope of better days which underwrote his election win.

Top aides have made clear that despite the economic blight, Obama intends to deliver on the sweeping political change he promised.

The president is already arguing that tackling healthcare reform, global warming and chasing energy independence are more vital than ever as the crisis rages.

Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget signaled on Monday that healthcare was a priority.

"The single most important thing we can do to put this nation back on a sustainable long-term fiscal course is to slow the growth rate of health care costs," he said.

Obama is also likely to argue that huge investments in new clean energy sources under his stimulus plan will unleash a green revolution that can power growth.

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After vowing to cut a gaping budget deficit he inherited from the Bush administration in half by 2013, the president will also likely seek political room for maneuver required to rein in spending.

Obama "understands he wasn’t elected to preside over a series of fundamentally easy choices and decisions to get us from where we are to where he knows this country can be," his spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Obama will also likely talk of bridging the partisan divide, even though few Republican legislators voted for his economic stimulus plan.

One leading Republican, Congressman Darrell Issa, told reporters at a White House "Fiscal Responsibility Summit" on Monday he was eagerly awaiting the speech.

"You never know what the salesmen is going to sell you until he turns up at the door," he said, but warned Obama to avoid a "laundry list" of spending plans.

Obama on Monday rebuked Republicans who opposed the stimulus at a meeting of US state governors.

Looking towards Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a possible future Republican presidential candidate, Obama said: "What I don’t want us to do … is to just get caught up in the same old stuff that inhibits us from acting effectively and in concert."

"There’s going to be ample time for campaigns down the road."

Jindal will deliver the Republican response to Tuesday’s presidential address.

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