State of the Union speech: Jobs, guns and free trade – Barack Obama outlines his vision for America

David Usborne delivers his verdict

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The Independent US

The words

It was, above all, about “jobs”. Mr Obama uttered the word 31 times in a one-hour speech as he placed greater emphasis than he did in his inaugural speech on finding ways to spur the recovery and lift the middle class and working poor. Bothered Republicans, though, will remember “dime” and “rubble”. Mr Obama said his serial initiatives to help the poor and boost the economy, including programmes to repair roads, introduce universal pre-kindergarten schooling and hike the minimum wage, would not cost the country one extra “dime” because of savings elsewhere. As for noting that America’s “rubble of crisis” had been cleared away, they thought: that’s right, blame George W again.

The delivery

Mr Obama is always a great speaker, and he was more chipper than we’ve seen him in a while. Yet the first 50 minutes were a bit flat – more a list of must-dos than a call to action. He saved guns for the very end. Look at the parents of dead children here in the chamber with you. Look at Gaby Giffords, shot in the head in her constituency, also in the room. Mr Obama had Congress and the country in the palm of his hand as he begged for action on guns.

The ideas

His address is already bearing fruit. Mr Obama said he wanted a free trade agreement with the EU. Yesterday European Commission President José Manuel Barroso announced formal talks with the US that would create the biggest free-trade deal in history, with the potential to add 0.5 per cent to GDP on both sides of the Atlantic. Elsewhere he brought a Santa sack of toys for his liberal supporters: raise the minimum wage; pledge money to infrastructure spending; promise to open manufacturing “institutes” to bring jobs back to America; show steel on Iran, Syria and North Korea; accelerate the drawdown in Afghanistan; pursue immigration reform and gun control; and get serious on climate change. 

The response

We really shouldn’t be thinking 2016, but the Republicans were. Marco Rubio, junior Senator from Florida, is the “It” Boy of the party. And he could be its new face. Rubio is just 41 and looks younger. Best of all, he is of Cuban parentage and, while conservative on most issues, is not so far from Mr Obama on compassionate immigration reform. But the rebuttal to the State of the Union can be a poisoned chalice. It’s unfair, but most will remember Rubio’s effort for those startling few seconds when he attempted to reach stage-left for a bottle of water while all the time keeping his eyes locked on the camera and delivering his lines. The bottle was far away and it looked like he was playing Twister. “He seemed parched, shaky and sweaty,” Maureen Dowd averred in the New York Times.

What the pundits said

“A clear effort by Obama to nudge the nation’s politics to the centre-left,” said Glenn Rush of Politico; “Packed to the gills with clichés, promises, gimmicks,” complained Fred Barnes on the Weekly Standard.