State of the Union: Obama makes his pitch

The Republicans have hogged the headlines – so far. But the President's State of the Union speech fired up his own campaign. David Usborne reports from Washington

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The Independent US

To watch the State of the Union on Tuesday night was to watch Barack Obama fight back. After the attacks from Republican candidates, and the grumblings within his own party, it was his moment to defend his record. Or to airbrush it into something palatable.

Two thoughts may have been duelling in Mr Obama's mind as he rode in his limousine, the Beast, from the White House to Capitol Hill: so much of what he promised in 2008 has failed to come to pass, yet there are reasons to hope that he may yet get away with those disappointments and squeak back in this November.

The famous oratory of Mr Obama in 2008 now seem at odds with the relative modesty of his achievements. Most striking is to recall his vision of an America that would no longer be defined as red or blue, the colours of opposing political parties. He promised to bridge bi-partisan divides and make Washington work again. It was almost poignant when he acknowledged that in this respect he had failed.

"No matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right now: nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken. Can you blame them for feeling a little cynical?" Amen.

The litany of failed promises is long. Guantanamo remains open. Immigration reform has got nowhere. The repair of America's relations with the Islamic world has proved a mirage. As for the economic prosperity that every presidential candidate must promise to deliver... Well, it's hard to be kind. Most of Mr Obama's economic vision has been left dead on the floor by the Republicans.

As historians remind us, no president has been re-elected with an unemployment rate of the kind Mr Obama will face this November. Even what he said in last year's State of the Union turned out to be overblown. "We are poised for progress," he said. "Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again." Then along came the oil price rise, the Japanese tsunami and the start of the eurozone meltdown.

But if voters are to be persuaded that he deserves a second chance, Mr Obama must – to recall a line from the 2008 campaign, in which he referred to John McCain's spin on the policies of George W Bush – start "putting lipstick on a pig". With more than 40 million Americans watching, the State of the Union was the opportunity to begin. He won't get a TV audience that big again till he accepts the Democratic nomination in a football stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September.

So he spun the awful unemployment picture. He was handed a dud deck by his predecessor, he said, noting that four million jobs were lost just before he came to office and another four million before his policies took effect. But three million new jobs were created in the last 22 months. In other words, things are getting better so leave me at the helm.

Fortunately for him, Mr Obama has had a few undeniable successes, like the killing last year of Osama bin Laden. He has also ended the war in Iraq. He claims al-Qa'ida is on the run and that the Taliban are on the back foot in Afghanistan. Too bad that Iraq seems on the brink of renewed chaos and that his Taliban claim is debatable at best.

Foreign policy, however, is not what Americans are thinking about, and Mr Obama gave it only six minutes in a speech lasting over an hour. Nearly all the rest was devoted to jobs and the economy: the areas where, according to the polls, he gets his lowest marks. So why did he seem almost ebullient before a Congress that is so hostile to him, and whence that sneaking optimism in the Beast about November?

Several factors are combining to put some spring in the step. A fair carpet of green shoots is showing in the American economy. A new poll in The Washington Post poll gives Mr Obama an approval rating of 50 per cent, higher than he has seen for a very long time.

The White House puts that down to one thing: a new-found forcefulness that has prompted Mr Obama to abandon his policy of conciliation towards Republicans in Congress, which earned him a reputation among his own supporters of being a pushover, in favour of a more confrontational approach.

The shift was most noticeable in a speech given in Kansas in early December, when Mr Obama cast himself almost as Theodore Roosevelt, who campaigned a century ago to break up monopolies and establish a progressive tax code to pass some of the entitlements of the rich to the middle class.

On Tuesday night Mr Obama unveiled what will be the guiding star of his campaign this year. Ironically, it has more or less been handed to him by the Republicans. The squabbling in Washington has been their fault, he is saying. Moreover, they are clinging to an ideology that has failed America before – that if the rich are allowed to get richer, the benefits will trickle down. Mr Obama now claims to be the defender of the middle class and of fairness. Hence his call for millionaires, including no doubt Mitt Romney, to pay higher taxes.

The Republicans have given Mr Obama something to flex his campaigning muscle against and he will seize the opportunity. "I intend to fight obstruction with action," he declared. "And I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place."

For their part Republicans will say that Mr Obama is playing the politics of envy. "No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favour with some Americans by castigating others," said Mitch Daniels, the Governor of Indiana, in the Republican Party's rebuttal to the President's address.

But the White House knows from its own polling data that when it comes to taxing the rich and re-establishing some equity in the American economy, the public appears to be on its side. Even the Occupy Wall Street movement tells the story.

"You can call this class warfare all you want," Mr Obama said. "Most Americans would call that common sense."

Verbatim: What he said

What Obama said: "Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1m a year, you should not pay less than 30 per cent in taxes."

What he meant: Bad Mitt Romney! You only paid 13.9 per cent tax on your $21.6m income in 2010. That's not "fair" (a word he used seven times).

 

What Obama said: "We bet on American workers... And tonight, the American auto industry is back."

What he meant: Romney would have "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" – the title of an op-ed he wrote in 2008.

 

What Obama said: "...responsible homeowners shouldn't have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief."

What he meant: Romney wants to wait for home foreclosures to "hit the bottom" to help the industry recover, as he said in Nevada in October 2011.

 

What Obama said: "...I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place."

What he meant: I promise to help the "99 per cent", unlike wealthy Wall Street sympathiser Romney.

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