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VIA: New York Times

WASHINGTON — For all the questions circulating in Democratic quarters as President Obama tries to weather the worst storm of his administration, perhaps none is as succinct as this: Are the missteps at the White House rooted in message or substance?

The Republican victory in Massachusetts last week touched off a domino effect of political setbacks for Democrats — most notably the fate of the health care agenda — that has prompted deep introspection in the Oval Office and across the administration.

When Mr. Obama presents his first State of the Union address on Wednesday evening, aides said he would accept responsibility, though not necessarily blame, for failing to deliver swiftly on some of the changes he promised a year ago. But he will not, aides said, accede to criticism that his priorities are out of step with the nation’s.

As Mr. Obama navigates a crossroads of his presidency, a moment when he signals what lessons he has drawn from his first year in office, the public posture of the White House is that any shortcomings are the result of failing to explain effectively what they were doing — and why. He will acknowledge making mistakes in pursuit of his agenda, aides said, but will not toss the agenda overboard in search of a more popular one.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who is close to Mr. Obama and many of his advisers, said the notion of the president accepting responsibility would probably be well received by the American people. But with growing strains of populism coming from Washington, he warned against making too drastic of a course correction.

n the eve of his speech to a joint session of Congress and a prime-time television audience, Mr. Obama and a small circle of advisers huddled for extended periods on Tuesday, seeking to fine-tune the speech that would serve as a roadmap for the president and his party in a midterm election year.

Still undecided, advisers said, was how much of the address would be devoted to health care as the prospects of finding a lifeline for the legislation seemed to be diminishing. A discussion was under way among the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress whether Mr. Obama would call for a scaled-down version of the legislation that has been the centerpiece of his domestic agenda.

The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, on Tuesday pointed to public opinion polls that showed a strong majority of Americans support many of the specific proposals inside the overall health care plan, but opposed the plan because of the messy legislative process surrounding the bill.

“Obviously the legislation became a caricature of its component parts,” Mr. Gibbs said. “To the degree that’s a communications failing, I think, people here at the White House and others would certainly take responsibility for that.”

The State of the Union address, which is Mr. Obama’s third appearance before a joint session of Congress, offers an opportunity for the president to restate the goals of his administration as he tries to turn the election-year conversation to the economy. The speech will be punctuated with a handful of new ideas — calling for a spending freeze on a portion of the domestic budget — but aides said it would largely be an opportunity for Mr. Obama to return to the proposals that swept him into office.

“Democrats are really looking for that spark again,” said David Young, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party. “We feel like we may be off track and we’re looking for the president to come out with bold initiatives and to lead.”

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