Obama presses on undaunted
President Barack Obama’s state of the union address on Tuesday night continued from where he had left off at his inauguration just weeks ago, fleshing out the more aspirational and rhetorical earlier speech. It was above all a reiteration of the message that he intends to press determinedly on with a liberal equity-based agenda, one he encapsulated as “reigniting the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class”. And will do so with or without cross-party support in Congress – on several issues such as climate change he warned he would not hesitate to use executive orders.
The evidence in the Senate was that it would be without. Republicans had spent the day tearing into their erstwhile colleague Chuck Hagel, whose nomination as Defence Secretary went through committee to the floor but only on a deeply partisan vote. Most immediately Mr Obama faces another looming confrontation with Republicans on the budget, with failure to agree leading to automatic cuts in spending that the president warned would jeopardise the country’s defence capability. But he made clear that he is not entertaining serious spending cuts or major entitlement reforms. Republicans, in their responses, repeated that they are not budging on taxes.
Mr Obama made clear that he does not intend his second term to be defined by the Republican single-minded spending cuts agenda and he returned to an important subtext of the inaugural address, setting out an ideological framework for his presidency. It is not so much about the immediate political challenges, but about repositioning the locus of US political debate away from the conservative mantra that nearly all problems can be traced back to excess government. And austerity cannot be a be-all and end-all: “We can’t just cut our way to prosperity ... let’s be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.”
The president made headlines on two specific announcements, the withdrawal of a further 34,000 US troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, and a substantial increase in the minimum wage from from $7.25 an hour to $9.00. His most powerful appeal, however, was on gun control and he returned strongly to the theme of immigration reform – both key Democratic issues which will prove major challenges. The state of the union has become a bit of a ritual, a series of standing ovations for policies that never become law. Whether Mr Obama can turn his renewed mandate into a new capacity to act is yet to be seen.
The president’s commitment to open trade talks with the EU will be particularly welcome to the Irish presidency which sees it as a major element of its jobs and growth agenda. The European Commission estimates that a comprehensive deal could add 0.5 per cent or €86 billion to the EU’s annual economic output.