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Published January 23 2012

Fargo lawmaker offers Obama some advice on State of the Union address

BISMARCK — A Fargo state legislator gave President Barack Obama advice last week on topics to address during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said the White House contacted him early last week to see if he would be interested in providing input for the speech. They said they wanted advice from government officials from around the country, Mathern said.

Mathern, a vocal supporter of federal health care reform, said he spoke to the president on the phone for 10 to 15 minutes Friday afternoon.

Mathern said he focused on broad concepts with the president rather than specific issues. He told Obama to highlight ways that government helps people, such as the disaster relief provided to North Dakota.

“I hear a lot of complaints in North Dakota about government, and I suggested that he highlight some areas how government works,” Mathern said.

Mathern also gave Obama advice on his recent speech references to former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.

“My feedback was I think that’s positive, but I think people are actually looking for Teddy Roosevelt’s style, not just a reference to Teddy Roosevelt,” Mathern said. “The people are looking for more of that (take-charge) leadership style.”

Mathern said he enjoyed his visit with the president and looks forward to what Obama will say during the speech and how he says it.

Obama will deliver the State of the Union address at 8 p.m. CT Tuesday. During the speech, he will lay out his vision for an America where hard work and responsibility are rewarded, where everyone does their fair share and where everyone is held accountable for what they do, according to a White House email.

North Dakota Republican Party Vice Chairman Jim Poolman will be there to hear it. Aware of the irony, Poolman said he paid $1,700 out of his own pocket to fly to Washington after being invited to the Democratic president’s speech.

Poolman said he received a call from the office of Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., on Friday asking him if he wanted to go.

“It’s going to be fun. It doesn’t matter who the president is, it’s a fantastic opportunity,” Poolman said. “Regardless of whether or not you agree with the guy (Obama) — and I don’t agree with him at all — he’s still the president. I would love to see the whole process.”

Poolman said he’s received a lot of teasing from both Republicans and Democrats over the invitation.

“My Republican friends for going and my Democrat friends for being able to go,” he said.

Poolman said he was told he would be in the gallery for the speech, but joked he would probably end up in a coat closet.

“I likely won’t be sitting next to Michelle Obama or anything like that,” he said.

In a preview Saturday, Obama said in a video to supporters that the speech will be an economic blueprint built around manufacturing, energy, education and American values.

He is expected to announce ideas to make college more affordable and to address the housing crisis still hampering the economy three years into his term, people familiar with the speech said. Obama will also propose fresh ideas to ensure that the wealthy pay more in taxes, reiterating what he considers a matter of basic fairness, the officials said.

His policy proposals will be less important than what Obama hopes they all add up to: a narrative of renewed American security with him at the center, leading the fight.

“We can go in two directions,” Obama said in the campaign video. “One is toward less opportunity and less fairness. Or we can fight for where I think we need to go: building an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few.”

That line of argument is intended to tap directly into concerns of voters who think America has become a nation of income inequality, with rules rigged to help the rich. The degree to which Obama or his eventual Republican opponent can better connect with millions of hurting Americans is expected to determine November’s presidential election.

Obama released his video hours ahead of the South Carolina primary, where Republican candidates fought in the latest fierce contest to become his general election rival.

The White House knows Obama is about to get his own stage to outline a re-election vision, but carefully. The speech is supposed to an American moment, not a campaign event.

Obama didn’t mention national security or foreign policy in his preview, and he is not expected to break ground on either one in his speech.

He will focus on the economy and is expected to promote unfinished parts of his jobs plan, including the extension of a payroll tax cut that is soon to expire.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.