President Barack Obama bucked his low poll ratings and gave a spirited State of the Union last night urging members of Congress to make 2014 a “year of action” on multiple fronts ranging from raising the minimum wage to closing Guantanamo Bay and signalling that where they won’t help he will try to get them done alone.
Adopting a tone that was more optimistic than confrontational as some had predicted, Mr Obama closed the more than hour-long televised speech with a moving and emotionally charged salute to a young soldier, Cory Remsburg, who, sitting alongside Michelle Obama, was nearly fatally wounded on deployment in Afghanistan.
Nothing got more applause than the young man rising to his feet: "Men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy," Mr Obama said. "Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged ... if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow – I know it’s within our reach."
It was a speech peppered with initiatives big and not so big – and many argued by him in States of the Union before – but which featured one over-arching lament that America is failing on its promise to give opportunity for all. Congress, he said, must raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour and reinstate long-term unemployment benefits.
"What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead,” he said, building on a theme of unacceptable economic inequality in the land.
"Those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all."
Among refrains that were familiar and which hitherto have seen little actual progress for the president were gun control and also action on climate change. On the latter, "debate is settled," he told the country. "Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did."
It was a night that was loaded with low expectations – the power of Mr Obama’s speeches may have diminished the longer he has been office – yet, it was one that bore high stakes for him and he strives to avoid lame duck status and revive the fortunes of his party as November’s mid-term congressional elections approach.
With a flash of pugnaciousness, he said that debate should also close on his healthcare reforms so derided by his political foes. "I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles," he said. "Let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans."
If there is one area where cooperation with Congress might just bear fruit this year it is on finding a compromise on extensive reform of America’s immigration system and giving relief to the 11 million people already in the country illegally. "Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: when people come here to fulfill their dreams – to study, invent, and contribute to our culture – they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone. So let’s get immigration reform done this year."
On foreign policy, he said he was "clear-eyed" about the risk of failure with the nuclear negotiations with Iran but said they must have a chance to succeed. And he repeated a warning that should Congress pass a bill with new sanctions on Iran, as some would like, he will veto it. "If John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today," he said. On Syria, he said little beyond America’s commitment to work with allies to bring its war to an end.
He touched again on the sensitive spot of Guantanamo Bay, which he has been trying, without success, to close since first being elected. "This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our Constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world."
Among the best of his applause was when, mindful of his party’s gender advantage at the polls, he rehearsed the also familiar them of ensuring equal pay for women in the workforce, invoking a popular television programme.
"It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode. This year, let’s all come together - Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street - to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds."
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