You don't need to stay on a White House conference call that long to understand who President Obama is thinking about as he prepares his first State of the Union address.
"We will talk about the very real challenges that middle class families have been facing," said White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer.
Jared Bernstein, Vice President Biden's chief economic adviser, said middle class families had been squeezed even before this recession took hold.
During a 20-minute conference call, the two used the terms middle class, low-income families and working families 24 times. Even before the speech, the White House has proposed several initiatives designed to help the middle class. They include expanding the child care tax credit, limiting student loan payments and helping families prepare for retirement.
Two of those proposals are attractive to 26-year-old Jennifer Weil. Weil is a graduate student at Minnesota State University-Moorhead who has $43,000 in student loan payments. Weil, who also chairs the Minnesota State University Student Association, is a single mom with two boys.
"I always joke that I pay for my education twice because I pay for childcare and I pay for my own tuition," Weil said.
In addition to her studies, Weil works as a graduate assistant at the school. She said the uncertainty in the job market is one reason she decided to go to graduate school. Weil said most college students would appreciate help when it comes to student loan payments.
“It's clear that he wants to send a message to the middle class that he's looking out for them and is on their side.”Kathryn Pearson, U of M
"Looking at student loan debt right now, the economy the way it is and job placement the way it is, any kind of debt relief for students who are graduating is definitely needed," she said.
Jim Carlson, with the advocacy group Childcare Works, said Obama's proposal would provide relief for thousands more Minnesota families who make $85,000 or less. Carlson said 150,000 Minnesotans currently claim the federal childcare tax credit that offers help for families that earn up to $45,000. He couldn't say how many more would benefit but said it will help cash strapped families.
"Health care costs are going up," Carlson said. "Childcare costs are going up and income is not rising as much as all of those expenses so anything that the government could do to help alleviate those expenses is good for people."
Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said Obama's efforts to help the middle class are motivated in part by the 2010 elections. She said the president is losing support among independent, middle income voters and is hoping to win them back.
"It's clear that he wants to send a message to the middle class that he's looking out for them and is on their side," Pearson said. "These, of course, are also voters who may vote Republican one year and Democratic the next, and probably who supported him in 2008 but are considering voting for a Republican in the 2010 midterms.
Pearson said last week's Massachusetts Senate race showed that voters are angry with their government and government spending. Republicans, like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, are working to stoke that concern by frequently criticizing Obama's spending plans.
"What the American people want us to do primarily is to stop the out of control spending," Bachmann said. "The president increased spending 22 percent this year and that's in a down economy when the private sector was contracting. It was really the wrong move."
Obama is also expected to address those concerns tonight. He will reportedly ask Congress to freeze discretionary government spending over the next three years. But that spending accounts for only a tiny part of the deficit and doesn't affect big areas of the budget like defense, Medicare and Social Security.
Obama may risk offending liberals with a freeze in his effort to attract centrist voters. That too could cause trouble for Democrats in this year's election because polls show conservative voters are more energized than liberals.