‘The myth about Obama is that he is a liberal’

The US president’s State of the Union address focused on the practical and the achievable

Thu, Jan 30, 2014, 01:00

Half the customers were setting rules for a drinking game based on US president Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech; the other half chose to ignore it, watching a college basketball game instead on other televisions in the bar.

“Every time there’s a standing ovation or Obama says ‘inequality’, ‘immigration’ or the ‘middle class’ you drink,” said one punter as the bartender at the Red Carpet Lounge turned on CNN for customers to watch Obama’s fifth State of the Union address, the highest- profile speech in the presidential calendar.

“Mr Speaker, Mr Vice-President, members of Congress, ” Obama said, starting his 65-minute address.

“I hate you all,” heckled a young man wearing a baseball cap who later said he was a Republican voter.

A short walk from West Virginia’s state capitol building in Charleston, this small but colourful bar was populated by an eclectic mix of politicos, hipsters, sports fans and blue-collar barflies. “You could have half the state legislature in here one night and drag queens the next,” one drinker explained.

The freezing temperatures meant the passing trade was slow. Charleston is still reeling from a massive coal-processing chemical spill earlier this month that affected the drinking water of 300,000 people.

‘Year of action’
This year Obama has swapped the aspirational for the achievable, declaring 2014 to be “a year of action”. Plagued by record-low approval ratings and a divided Congress that is one of the least productive in history, he warned a hostile Republican opposition with control of the House of Representatives and blocking power in the Senate that he would act unilaterally if they did not support his plans.

He said he would seek the support of Congress for policies to tackle economic inequality and the widening gulf between the rich and everyone else, or act without legislators wherever possible.

The policies represent a pragmatic Obama in contrast to the hopeful Obama that was swept to power in 2008. He has a short time to reboot his presidency and salvage his legacy as a progressive reformer before the campaigns for the November midterm elections and the presidential race scare politicians away from major policy decisions that might jeopardise their electoral prospects.

“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” he said.

“Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”