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In State of the Union, Obama tries to make a place for himself in the history books

WASHINGTON President Barack Obama on Tuesday followed a familiar script for presidents entering their sixth year, as he tried to revive his waning political clout while shaping his legacy.

Obama delivered his State of the Union address to an American public increasingly skeptical that he can help ease their economic pain. His influence on Capitol Hill, while never robust, has all but vanished. He knows his historic fate is largely out of his control.

Obama is the fourth of the last five presidents to serve second terms. Like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him, Obama tried to write his own history by promoting signature policies and themes that were part of their election mandates.

Obama’s pitch was a plea for a more sound, more equitable economy. Corporations prosper, he said, yet “inequality has deepened.”

He urged civility and common purpose.

“I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America. After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth,” Obama said.

But he also got tough: If Congress won’t act, he said, he will.

“So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” Obama pledged.

Obama announced executive action to raise the minimum wage for people working on new federal contracts to $10.10. Congress would likely not have agreed.

He’s also bypassing Congress to allow people to have new “starter” retirement savings accounts.

Such actions probably will chill further his relations with a Congress where Republicans already lead the House of Representatives and the Senate’s center-left Democrats are inching away from a president highly unpopular in their states.

He’s going to have trouble corralling those Democrats from more conservative states, who shudder at the prospect of defending the 2010 health care law they once supported. And Obama’s call for more help for the poor is unlikely to be a big help, either.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win control of the Senate, and they see tremendous opportunity in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Montana and West Virginia, all seats now held by Democrats.

Obama, the Republicans argued Tuesday, is desperate and overreaching. “House Republicans will continue to look closely at whether the president is faithfully executing the laws, as he took an oath to do,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Obama’s pitch Tuesday was a plea to finish the job, a standard State of the Union device at this stage of a presidency.

George W. Bush gave upbeat accounts of the war in Iraq in 2006. Bill Clinton heralded a new “third way” to govern and pledged to preside over a smaller, more innovative government. Ronald Reagan saw a “rising America,” fueled by a strong economy and worldwide respect.

None of these attempts to give their presidencies new momentum worked. Iraq remained a quagmire. Reagan would get ensnared in the Iran-contra scandal by the end of the year.

On the day before Clinton gave his address, he told reporters, “I did not have sexual relations” with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He didn’t mention the scandal. By the end of the year, he had been impeached.

History strongly suggests Obama’s fate is unpredictable and could even move his way. He could rebound, as Reagan and Clinton did. The Syrian conflict could be resolved with American help. The economy could boom. Obamacare could prove popular _ and the president emphasized that he’s hardly about to stop touting that cause.

“I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles,” he said.

Even without such a rosy scenario, Obama could benefit from a different kind of sixth-year hitch: a fractured opposition. Democrats were on the march in 1986 and won control of the Senate. Republicans were eager to tar Clinton in the Lewinsky scandal in 1998, and Democrats used growing disdain for the Iraq war to win control of Congress in 2006.

This year, Republicans remain divided between grassroots tea party conservatives, who abhor compromise, and establishment types willing to moderate their views to woo swing voters. The party is struggling to speak with one voice on a host of big issues, including immigration, federal spending and debt ceiling limits. It’s not unified on whether to extend emergency jobless benefits, which expired at the end of last month.

“I’m also convinced we can help Americans return to the workforce faster by reforming unemployment insurance so that it’s more effective in today’s economy,” Obama said. “But first, this Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people.”

Obama’s mission Tuesday, though, was not to urge patience with history but to help rewrite it. So he joined past presidents by trying to paint himself as a visionary nearing the end of an eight-year mission.

“Rarely have Americans lived through so much change, in so many ways, in so short a time,” Clinton declared in 1998.

“Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time,” Bush told the nation in 2006.

Obama, too, got lofty.

What Americans want, he said, is “for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all _ the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”

Probably no one disagreed with that. Then again, those words could have been uttered by Bush, Reagan or Clinton, too.

Email:dlightman@mcclatchydc.com;Twitter:@lightmandavid
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