The Irish Times view: President Barack Obama is on the last lap, but is not coasting home

State of the union address cites notable successes but gridlock between Democrats and Republicans remains

 

The mantra we will hear from every Coalition mouth in the weeks ahead, “keep the recovery going”, would have sat easily in Barack Obama ’s last state of the union address to Congress on Tuesday. Like the Coalition, Obama sees his central challenge in terms of selling an upbeat, glass-half-full vision of America as she stands that will contrast sharply with tonight’s gloom-filled depictions of US decline by Republicans in their TV debate. The president is beginning to define his legacy.

Obama’s vision, after seven years of stewardship, is of the US as the most powerful nation on earth, challenged, yet on the up once again, growing jobs, with better health care and startling innovation. It was a reply – no names mentioned – to those on the right and left, who have themed their presidential campaigns on the decline of America’s standing and leadership in the world in the face of IS and an obstreperous Vladimir Putin. “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” Obama also insisted.

He did admit to one great failing – his inability to bridge the deepening, bitter partisanship that has defined US politics and made co-operation between Democrats and Republicans impossible. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency, that the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he complained. Every one of his past state of the union speeches has made the promise to overcome the Washington legislative gridlock a leitmotif, and yet the current election reflects a wider gap between red and blue politics than any in memory.

A few statistics tell a story of significant success, although how much attributable to Obama is hotly contested: nearly 14 million more jobs created since the recovery began, more than 17 million citizens with health care coverage, and household income levels on average finally returned to the level when the recession began. It’s not the whole picture – inequality and poverty have worsened in his time in office, and the national debt soared.

The temptation, however, to see the president now as a lame duck counting down the 372 days left to him, would be a mistake. Paradoxically, in the past six months he has been liberated from the constraints of playing to the electoral calendar and has advanced elements of his stalled agenda through executive fiat, bypassing Congress.

He has introduced limited new gun controls, acted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and power plants, and has given temporary deportation relief to hundreds of thousands of immigrants. The landmark nuclear agreement with Iran has similarly been made possible using presidential discretion over elements of the sanctions package. Obama’s wooing of China to join the climate change fight was a major factor in the success of the Paris summit. He may be on his last lap, but he’s not planning to coast home.

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