State of the Union speech: Barack Obama tackles economy and tries to put human face on plea for tougher gun laws

 

By turns pugnacious and inspirational, Barack Obama last night used his State of the Union address to table a laundry list of aspirations for his second term that ranged from achieving tax reform to increasing the minimum wage and tackling issues from gun control to immigration and climate change. 

Standing before a joint session of the US Congress and with millions of Americans watching at home, Mr Obama reaffirmed a mostly optimistic vision for the country that since he took first took office four years ago has climbed out of economic calamity and come close to ending military wars abroad. “Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger,” he insisted.

In a speech that was dominated by domestic concerns and above all with boosting the economic recovery and ensuring a more level playing field between the wealthy and the middle class, Mr Obama also announced plans to negotiate a new comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union, “because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs”.

On foreign issues, however, he told Iran that the time for negotiating an end to the stand-off on its nuclear programme had arrived and he castigated North Korea for its latest test of an atomic device. He moreover said he was accelerating the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”

He also revealed he was taking executive steps to help America defend itself from cyber-attacks from abroad and urged Congress to take legislative action for the same purpose. “Our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

The night – an annual ritual in America’s political calendar set on a stage peopled by every member of Congress, of the president’s cabinet, of the top brass of military and of the Supreme Court crammed into the chamber of the House of Representatives under the eye of a packed public gallery and network television cameras – ended with a rebuttal form the opposition, delivered last night by Marco Rubio, the fast-rising Republican Senator from Florida.

The investment Mr Obama intends to make on trade ties with the EU may not go unnoticed in Downing Street.  Washington has advertised its anxieties about David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on EU membership if re-elected Prime Minister.  While there is free-trade between the EU and the US already, a new pact would aim to go further to free up traffic in services and harmonise regulations between the two sides of the Atlantic.

Speaking so fast his mouth dried to a crust, Mr Rubio accused Mr Obama of harbouring an “obsession with raising taxes”.  And he accused him of trying to demonise his party as the party of the rich. “I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbours,” Mr Rubio said.

Lasting one hour, Mr Obama’s speech took off in its final passages as he implored Congress to take seriously his proposals on new gun control as the only way to avoid a repeat of recent gun massacres.  With many victims of those tragedies in the chamber, Mr Obama achieved first a hush in the chamber that was slowly followed by a swell of applause and, in some cases, the rapid wetting of cheeks.

Mr Obama asked members of both parties to consider those touched by each tragedy. “They deserve a vote,” he said. “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

Two guests in the chamber drew particular attention.  Ms Giffords, the former Arizona Congresswoman who suffered such grievous brain damage in a shooting two years ago, watched and applauded by clasping her hands together and shaking them.  Clapping remained beyond her damaged body.  And in announcing a bipartisan commission to find ways to improve America’s voting system, Mr Obama pointed to a woman who had stood in line to vote four hours last November and had never given up.  She was Desiline Victor.  She is 102 years old.

Many overseas allies will be glad to see Mr Obama grasping the nettle of climate change firmly, citing recent climate catastrophes in America. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence,” he said.  “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.”

Within the chamber he seemed to strike a chord on immigration reform, a reflection that Republicans, disowned by most Hispanics in the last presidential race, are now ready to move on giving 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.  “Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants,” the Presidebnt declared.  “And right now, leaders from the business, labour, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

But if Mr Obama sees hope for progress there, on other issues the fight might be more difficult.  On fiscal policy and the impending automatic triggering of $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, the divisions between the parties were highlighted by the speech.  But Mr Obama tried to scold Republicans for their continuing insistence on cuts in social welfare spending he will not tolerate and for resisting tax increases. 

“These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness,” he said.  “They’d devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as “the sequester,” are a really bad idea.”

He also accused the Republicans of repeatedly pushing the country to the edge of fiscal disaster. “Let’s set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future. And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors. The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.”

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Market Administrator (1st line Support, Bloomberg, Broker)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Market Administrator (1st line Support, Trade Fl...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

Data Support Analyst (Linux, Solaris, Windows Server, Reuters)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Data Support Analyst (Linux, Solaris, Windows Se...

Helpdesk Support Engineer (Windows, MS Office, Exchange)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Helpdesk Support Engineer (Windows, MS Office, E...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition