What a difference an election victory makes. President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday evening – with the exception of his emotional appeal for action on gun control – may have lacked the soaring cadences of his second inaugural speech three weeks earlier. Instead, it was a long and eminently sensible list of goals, enumerated by a man confident in his power and visibly liberated by the knowledge that he will never face the voters again.
His central theme – the need to improve the lot of the middle class – may have been familiar, but it is no less true for that. Nothing has more perniciously eroded national morale than the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and the decades-long stagnation, or worse, of the living standards of ordinary Americans. Rightly, Mr Obama pressed for improved education and job training, the closure of tax loopholes that favour the wealthy, and a substantial increase in the minimum wage. His call for action on climate change, like his demand for tighter gun legislation, was common sense.
How much he will achieve is another matter, however. Any deal to avoid impending automatic spending cuts of $85bn and pave the way for a long-term deficit-reduction plan – the overriding domestic issue – will require Republican support. Sadly, neither the President’s speech, nor the Republican response from Senator Marco Rubio, offered much sign of common ground. As regards America’s fiscal problems, both were mere re-statements of respective party positions.
Even so, the sense of a new assuredness in Mr Obama was unmissable. In part, the President’s poise stems from his clear victory in November, after a campaign fought on many of the topics of Tuesday’s address. The second factor is the corollary of the above: the soundly defeated Republicans know something must now change.
True, the GOP has retained control of the House of Representatives, but largely thanks to its diligent gerrymandering of Congressional districts; in the overall House vote, the Democrats won half a million more. The House’s popularity is, moreover, at an all-time low – hardly a platform from which to mount a take-no-prisoners resistance to the White House. Rarely has the presidential bully pulpit been more of a factor in US politics, and in the all-important months ahead Mr Obama will be using it with a vengeance.
At most, his window of opportunity will last until the early summer of 2014. Then the mid-terms will be the dominating concern. And immediately afterwards, the focus will switch to the presidential race, leaving Mr Obama a virtual bystander – in domestic policy terms, at least – for his last two years. In the short time left to him, though, much can still be done.
The most promising area is immigration. Wisely, Mr Obama made no attempt on Tuesday to lay down specific guidelines to Congress, where a bipartisan consensus is already taking shape (thanks, in large part, to the Republicans’ need to boost the party’s dismal standing among Hispanic voters). Long- overdue reform of the complex, unfair US tax code is another possibility, given that both parties agree that loopholes must be closed for new revenue to be raised. So, too, is some form of gun control, although perhaps less than Mr Obama would like.
The real question – as always in Washington – will be whether anything agreed between the two sides can survive the attentions of the lobbyists and special interest groups. But Tuesday was, nonetheless, a solid night’s work from a president at the zenith of his power.