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Two years into term, Obama sizes up changed union ; Success of goals mixed with reshaped Congress

Nearly two years ago on a cold February day, President Obama stood for the first time before a joint session of Congress and spoke of a national day of reckoning.

It was time not just to stabilize the shaken economy, he declared, but to reach for lasting prosperity.

His goals were expansive: overhauling health care, cutting the deficit, improving schools, finding a way out of Iraq and a way ahead in Afghanistan. Most of all, creating jobs. Jobs by the millions.

He had big plans and a Democratic majority in Congress to help him carry them out.

Grim as the economic news was at the time, the nation -- and Obama -- didn't know how bad it was going to get before things started to turn around. The economy hemorrhaged nearly 4 million jobs in 2009, Obama's first year as president.

Two years into his term, as Obama prepares to stand before Congress once again on Tuesday, he will size up an altered State of the Union.

The economy undisputedly is on stronger footing, though far from robust. There's a new health care law. U.S. troops have come out of Iraq and gone into Afghanistan.

"The most productive two years that we've had in generations," the president pronounces it.

Yet he will speak to a radically reshaped Congress. His party's ranks have been thinned by voters who delivered a harsh verdict in November on two years of collaboration between Obama and the Democratic-controlled House and Senate.

He faces Republicans who have sworn to slash spending by as much as $100 billion as the government comes off an economic rescue effort that has put the country on track for a third consecutive year of $1 trillion-plus deficits.

The unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in February 2009, when Obama first addressed Congress. It hit double digits by that October and was 9.4 percent at last report.

Housing is a particular sore spot. Foreclosures hit a record 1 million in 2010, and this year's figures are likely to be worse.

In Obama's first address to Congress, the president spoke passionately about the inequities and "crushing costs" of the health care system, of families denied treatment or forced into bankruptcy because of medical bills.

Last March 23, after a long and fierce battle, Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aimed at expanding coverage to virtually all in this country.

The political repercussions were immediate and intense. Republicans campaigned against "Obamacare" in the fall elections; Democrats mostly tried to avoid the subject.

Tuesday, Obama will stand before Congress in the same chamber where House Republicans voted just days ago to scrap the law (knowing their repeal effort would flounder in the Senate.)

Republicans say they want to hear less about everything they've been hearing for the past two years.

The second-ranking House Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, said Obama should focus less on Washington-based initiatives and more on policies that allow individuals to make their own decisions.

"We want America to be competitive, but then he talks about investing," Cantor said. "When we hear 'invest' from anyone in Washington, to me that means more spending. The investment needs to occur in the private sector."

As part of the call for civility in political discourse that followed the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., some lawmakers have sought to cross the aisle -- literally -- and sit with members of the opposing party during the address.

But don't look for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to take a different seat. McConnell said he will take a seat at the leadership table on the Republican side of the aisle, as usual.

"If people want to mix it up, they certainly can. We don't have seating assignments for most of our members," he said.

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