An emboldened Barack Obama will serve notice to his foes on Capitol Hill tomorrow night that he means to get his own way in his second term and deliver on promises to spur growth and tackle tricky issues ranging from climate change to guns, immigration and nuclear arms.
The annual State of the Union Address gives Mr Obama the opportunity to lay down markers for his entire second four-year term. He is certain to emphasise giving the still-sluggish recovery much-needed oomph with new spending initiatives, such as on education, clean energy and infrastructure.
As he stands before Congress – and millions of Americans at home – Mr Obama may pay lip-service to bipartisanship and he will doubtless attempt to offer a balance between new spending and deficit-cutting discipline. But most observers expect him to build on the aggressively partisan – and progressive – tone of his inaugural address of three weeks ago, never mind the inevitable disgust he will stir among Republicans.
Indeed, almost more anticipated than Mr Obama’s speech tonight is the traditional Republican rebuttal. This time it will come from Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, regarded by some as a future saviour of the Republican Party and possible 2016 presidential candidate.
The path ahead is strewn with perils and opportunities for Mr Obama, who still faces a House of Representatives controlled by Republicans. He is again staring at a new fiscal abyss with a $1.2 trillion in spending cuts due to be automatically triggered on 1 March if he can’t persuade Republicans to embrace a new deficit-reduction deal that includes cuts in spending and increases in tax revenues.
On that front and others difficult arguments loom. The Republicans want social-spending cuts beyond what most Democrats can stomach. They assuredly will resist additional tax increases on the rich that Mr Obama seeks and mean to stand in his way on banning assault weapons and high-capacity gun clips.
The White House, however, sees broad public support across the Obama agenda. A Quinnipiac University poll today showed that by a wide margin Americans want the economy to be the focus of tonight’s speech. “Voters trust President Obama more than congressional Republicans on the economy and most other issues,” Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac polling, said.
Officials have meanwhile indicated that Mr Obama is poised to circumvent Congress to take action on several fronts by executive order. This could include giving new workplace rights to gay and lesbians, enacting curbs on factory emissions to address climate change and taking steps to spur the housing market. Today a group of celebrities including Alec Baldwin, Morgan Freeman, Susan Sarandon and Woody Harrelson signed a letter urging Mr Obama to make global warming a top priority of his second term.
Mr Obama is expected to make class fairness his overarching theme tonight. He signalled as much speaking at a Democratic Party retreat last week. “Throughout my campaign and throughout many of your campaigns, we talked about this bedrock notion that our economy succeeds and our economy grows when everybody is getting a fair shot and everybody is getting a fair shake and everybody is playing by the same rules that we have an economy in which we’re growing a vibrant middle class,” he said.
Just as he has already done on gun control and immigration reform, Mr Obama will hit the road after the speech to try to garner public support for the main planks of his programme. The White House says he will give campaign-style speeches before the weekend in Illinois, Georgia and North Carolina.
As he begins his second term, Mr Obama is being cheered by liberals for his progressive stance on social and climate issues, but the same people are voicing new anxiety over his national security conduct. Tensions have flared since the release last week of a previously secret memo giving Mr Obama permission to kill American citizens by drone strike if they are seen to represent a terrorist threat. While foreign relations may be skated over tonight, officials have indicated that the President will revive his pledge of nearly four years ago to make reducing nuclear arsenals globally a new priority. The White House seems prepared to cut American nuclear missile numbers by a third to just above 1,000.
Mr Obama will remind Congress of what happened in Newtown and urge it to enact a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity clips and tighten background checks. There are signs that Republicans may agree to new background-check rules, including at private gun fairs. The bans on big guns and big clips look likely to falter.
He will insist that austerity measures to cut the deficit must be offset by stimulus spending to get the economy moving again. Republicans remain set against new spending unless Mr Obama offers serious cuts in social safety net spending. But if money becomes available for roads and bridges in their districts, their tune might change.
After ignoring it through his first term, Mr Obama wants immigration reform to happen now, notably giving the 11 million currently in the US illegally a path to eventual citizenship. Look for a signal from Senator Marco Rubio tonight that his party is ready to budge on immigration. They got walloped last year by Hispanic voters and his parentage is Cuban.
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