State of the Union: President Obama rediscovers his power to shape the national debate


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The Independent Online

Barack Obama is a fiercely competitive man who, to use a metaphor from his favourite sport of basketball, takes pride in always playing a strong fourth quarter. And so it was in Tuesday’s combative State of the Union speech, formally opening the final quarter of his presidency.

He made no mention of the crushing defeat in November’s midterms that meant he was addressing, for the first time, a Congress totally controlled by Republicans. Nor were there any notable olive branches to the latter, from a President often accused by his supporters of being too ready to compromise with opponents who offer nothing in return. Instead Mr Obama spoke in defiant, sometimes almost cocky terms, setting out an unabashedly liberal agenda for his last two years in office, of an activist government helping the poor and middle classes.

Not much of that agenda will become law. “Dead on arrival” was the universal Republican response to most of his domestic proposals. The realistic prospect is of two more years of gridlock before the 2016 presidential election offers some hope of a new start. But Republicans should be careful. As if liberated by defeat, Mr Obama has regained the political initiative he forfeited after his re-election in 2012.

At a time of an ever-growing divide between the very rich and the rest, the President’s message of greater social equity is powerful. Even more so is the economic recovery that has made the US the envy of the developed world, and has helped propel his approval ratings to their best level since 2012. With his executive action on immigration, the opening to Cuba and his blunt warning that he will veto any new Congressional sanctions on Iran, Mr Obama finally seems to have learnt the power of his office, and its ability to shape the national debate. What is sad is that it took so long. If only he had played a strong third quarter as well.