Obama to offer big freeze on spending

President tries to convince Americans that he's on top of $1.3 trillion deficit

Confronted by an array of political perils, President Barack Obama will use the State of the Union address tonight to vow to stand by his principle domestic priorities, including healthcare reform, while at the same time taking more drastic steps to rein in government spending.

The President will notably call for a three-year freeze on discretionary spending in next year's federal budget, targeting domestic programmes in education and science and various social services. Areas which will not see such restraint will include defence and military spending as well as social security and Medicare.

The White House is reacting in part to the loss of the late Edward Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown last week. The weakening of support for Mr Obama may stem in part from a perception – skillfully nourished by conservatives – that he is presiding over a government-gone-wild in Washington with ever-ballooning deficits and a national debt which is increasingly expensive to service.

There was a smidgen of encouraging news yesterday from the Congressional Budget Office, which predicted the budget deficit will come in at $1.3tn in the current fiscal year, down slightly from $1.4tn posted last year.

Perhaps more surprising was fresh consumer confidence data yesterday indicating that Americans feel more optimistic about the economy now than they have for nearly a year and a half.

The huge deficits nonetheless continue to pose a significant political problem for Mr Obama. The Massachusetts debacle brought into sharp focus the backlash which has developed against some of what his administration has already wrought in its first year, including the $787bn stimulus programme and the bank bailout.

The proposed freeze is in some ways symbolic, affecting about 8 per cent of the federal budget and likely in the end to save the government only about $250bn. If it succeeds in quelling some criticism of the administration from conservatives, it is likely at the same time to infuriate liberal Democrats who already feel abandoned by Mr Obama.

In a sign of disunity within the Democratic camp, the progressive advocacy group moveon.org yesterday placed a full-page advertisement in USAToday warning the President and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill against any drift to the centre, under the headline, "Fight, Don't Fold".

Not for the first time, Mr Obama faces a task that some are billing as make-or-break for him politically. In the past, he has risen to the occasion, for example when he delivered his speech at West Point on the troop surge in Afghanistan or on the night he summoned Congress to a joint session to hear his pitch on healthcare.

But now things are stickier. Because the party has lost its filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority in the US Senate, the prospects for healthcare reform have dimmed dramatically and no one seems certain how best to try to salvage it.

Mutterings are being heard around Washington, meanwhile, that it might be time for some high-profile firings in the Obama circle, perhaps of Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner or economics advisor, Larry Summers.

But more generally, members of his own party, many of whom are now fretting about their re-election prospects in November, will be looking for some kind of coherent narrative from the President for the months ahead. While the message of Republicans – reject all things Obama – is as clear as crystal, the President's thread is harder to find.

Rather, there are some contradictions in the White House stance. Even as Mr Obama presents himself as a deficit disciplinarian, he will not back away from priorities which he thinks will pay off politically in the long-run. They include plans for a $150bn jobs creation bill.

The promise of a partial spending freeze did not immediately impress congressional Republicans. "Given Washington Democrats' unprecedented spending binge, this is like announcing you're going on a diet after winning a pie-eating contest," remarked Michael Steel, spokesman for the House minority leader, John Boehner.

'I'd rather be a good one-term President'

This President is not about to give up on the things America elected him for – even it means giving up on re-election in 2012. So said a surprisingly defiant Barack Obama in an interview with ABC News. "I'd rather be a really good one-term President than a mediocre two-term President," he declared, adding: "You know, there is a tendency in Washington to believe our job description, of elected officials, is to get re-elected. That's not our job description. Our job description is to solve problems and to help people."

And like George Bush before him and countless other previous residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he affected nonchalance about recent polls that have seen his job approval rating dip to 50 per cent and below. "I went through this in the campaign," he said. "When your poll numbers drop, you are an idiot. When your poll numbers are high, you are a genius. If my poll numbers are low, then I am cool and cerebral and cold and detached. If my poll numbers are high, 'Boy he's calm and reasoned all right'."

What's the point of the State of the Union speech?

Q. Have Americans always had one?

A. No. Article 2, Section 3 of the US Constitution provides merely that the President "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union". Most 19th-century presidents sent a written message, read out by a clerk. Woodrow Wilson was the first to deliver his in person, in 1913. It wasn't until 1947 that Harry Truman formally called it the State of the Union Address. Only in 1965 did it become a prime-time event, when Lyndon Johnson moved the time from noon to evening. It now traditionally occurs in the final week of January each year.

Q. Is it the American equivalent of the Queen's Speech in Britain?

A. Up to a point. The State of the Union was originally conceived as a republican version of the Speech from the Throne. But there are important differences. In the UK, the monarch is head of state, but not head of government. She merely reads out a list of legislative proposals drawn up by the Government, whose majority in the House of Commons will turn them into law. A US president is both head of state and government. But in a system where executive and legislative branches are separate and co-equal, a president's writ is not law – even when, as now, the same party controls both.

Q. Is it as theatrical as the State Opening of Parliament?

A. The costumes aren't as quaint, but in its way the State of the Union's choreography is no less elaborate. Both addresses are delivered to joint sessions, of the Lords and the Commons in Britain, of the Senate and the House of Representatives in the US, joined by members of the Supreme Court (the third, judicial, branch of government) and top military brass. But whereas the Queen's Speech is heard in decorous quiet, the President's hour-long speech is constantly interrupted by applause, from his own side or – rarer in this partisan age – from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Q. What purpose does it serve?

A. The State of the Union is a rite of American democracy in the media age. Theoretically, it is an annual report by the chief executive on the previous year's performance of USA Inc, (which is why this, technically, is President Obama's first State of the Union, although he gave a similar address to Congress last year, soon after taking office), and on the prospects for the year ahead. In practice, what matters is the sense of direction a president conveys and the priorities he outlines. A State of the Union rarely produces memorable phrases (President George Bush's 2002 denunciation of the "axis of evil" being the big recent exception).

Q. Would it make any difference if it were scrapped?

A. Not if you believe Peter Robinson, a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan (and author of Reagan's supremely memorable "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall" line in Berlin in 1987). According to Mr Robinson, the State of the Union is "one of the central mysteries of modern American life. The President doesn't want to give it, Congress doesn't want to listen to it, and the networks don't want to cover it, and every year the damn thing happens all the same."

Rupert Cornwell

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
One of the installations in the Reiner Ruthenbeck exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery
artCritics rally to defend Reiner Ruthenbeck's 'Overturned Furniture'
News
John Cleese is promoting his new book
people
News
A-list actresses such as Deepika Padukone get paid a tenth of what their male counterparts make per film
news
News
The Black Friday Vines that will destroy your faith in humanity
i100

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
News
Robbie Rogers: US former Leeds United footballer, 25, announced he was gay in February 2013, shortly after he left Elland Road. Rogers 'retired' after writing on his blog: 'I'm a soccer player, I'm Christian, and I'm gay.' Has since signed with Los Angeles Galaxy.
peopleUS footballer said he had hoped Michael Sam and Jason Collins coming out might have helped
Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops
films
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
art

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game