Obama kicks off pre-State of Union tour with housing move

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WASHINGTON — Seizing on a recent burst of momentum, President Barack Obama kicked off a three-state tour to unveil what the White House is calling “spoilers” from his State of the Union address, starting Wednesday with lower insurance premiums for government-backed mortgages.

Under the proposal, announced as Obama was flying to Michigan, the Federal Housing Administration will cut annual mortgage insurance premiums by 0.5 percentage point, to 0.85 percent. The White House said the reduction means new home buyers and those who refinance with FHA would pay $900 less a year than they would otherwise, in a bid to help more Americans own their own homes.

After touting the auto industry’s resurgence in the afternoon at a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, Obama flies to Phoenix — a symbol both of the housing market’s crash and its slow recovery. The premium rate reduction was to be the centerpiece of Obama’s speech there on Thursday before Obama finishes his trip Friday in Tennessee, where he is expected to tout the state’s new policy to pay for community college tuition.

All three issues are expected to play central roles on Obama’s annual address to Congress, scheduled this year for Jan. 20.

A recent flurry of aggressive executive actions on domestic and foreign policy have energized the West Wing. With the economy growing and his approval rating creeping upward, Obama is searching for ways to prevent this spurt of momentum from being more than just a blip on the radar of his presidency’s waning years.

Not on Obama’s schedule during his first workweek of the new year: a meeting with the leaders of the Republican-led Congress, which officially began Tuesday. That won’t happen until early next week.

“I’m confident there are going to be areas where we disagree and there will be some pitched battles,” Obama said of the new GOP leadership, though he added that he was hopeful for a “productive 2015.”

The contours of the first fight were set within hours of the new Congress being gaveled into session. Republicans moved forward with plans to advance legislation approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline – and the White House vowed to veto the measure.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Kentucky lawmaker who is the new Senate majority leader, said Wednesday from the Senate floor that Obama’s veto threat just after the new Congress convened “is anything but productive.”

Beyond Keystone, the Republican priority list for 2015 includes making changes to Obama’s signature health care law, seeking to block his executive actions on immigration and rolling back environmental regulations favored by the White House.

On Wednesday, the White House said the president would also veto GOP-backed legislation that would increase the health care law’s definition of a full-time worker from 30 to 40 hours per week.

It should come as no surprise that the president’s to-do list for the year looks far different from Republican plans. To that end, officials said the president planned to make additional stops around the country next week in an effort to gain traction for his own priorities heading into the State of the Union.

“Typically, we try to hold all the news until the day of the speech,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a post on the blogging platform Medium. “But this year, we figured there’s no time like the present.”

Escaping Washington has long been the Obama White House’s go-to strategy for generating momentum during tough stretches of his presidency. White House aides say one of the president’s biggest frustrations last year was his inability to travel around the country in support of Democratic candidates given his party’s wariness of his deepening unpopularity.

But in something of a surprise shift, the president heads out on this week’s fly-around with his approval rating showing some signs of strengthening. After dropping to 40 percent in the Gallup daily tracking poll around Election Day, the latest survey shows 46 percent of Americans approve of the president’s job performance. The percentage of people who disapprove of the president has also fallen below 50 percent.

The slightly improving environment for the president comes amid a surge in economic growth that’s been fueled by hiring gains, cheaper gas prices and rising consumer confidence. Administration officials are warily watching slowdowns in other parts of the world, including Europe, but say they believe the recent U.S. economic gains will be sustained, unlike other periods of progress under Obama’s watch that proved to be fleeting.

The president’s team also attributes some of the president’s improved standing to his willingness to eschew Congress and instead wield his executive powers. He angered many Republicans by unveiling plans to allow more than 4 million people living in the U.S. illegally to stay in the country. That action was followed by a surprise decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba after a half-century freeze.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that while the president wasn’t completely turning his back on the new Congress, he would continue to seek out areas to act on his own. He said he hoped that strategy would result in a continuation of the recent “trend in the poll numbers.”

JULIE PACE, AP White House Correspondent

Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

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