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State of the Union: Obama tinkers around the edges

  • 29 January 2014
  • From the section Magazine
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President Barack Obama delivers the 2014 State of the Union address
This was Mr Obama's last best chance to reset his presidency - and it is unclear he managed a major shift

Tonight, President Barack Obama promised a "year of action".

But if this speech is any guide, it should more accurately be called a "year of quite small, tinkering around the edges, do what I can it in a very difficult environment, and, oh and by the way, my time is running out, actions".

Gone is the audacity of hope. This State of the Union address didn't promise big changes on anything - there was no transformation on offer here. This was Mr Obama in realist mode with a workmanlike State of the Union address.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Americans are in the mood for solutions, not rhetoric. They know that Washington is deeply divided and big legislation on anything is unlikely, so what they want to know is what the president can actually do to help their daily lives, given that political reality.

So Mr Obama largely ignored his opponents in Congress, he barely mentioned the Republican Party by name. He wasn't rude to them, indeed he tried to stay deliberately optimistic for much of the speech.

It was more that he was speaking over Republican lawmakers' heads and going directly to the American public.

The mood was summed up early on: "America doesn't stand still - and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunities for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

As the veteran reporters I was watching with put it, it was a bit like watching two divorced parents who are co-parenting and barely acknowledge the other's existence.

Graphic

Last, best change

Economists and fact checkers will tell us how much of what Mr Obama suggested he can do alone, he actually can do alone.

But this address had the virtue at least of touching on bread-and-butter issues that genuinely affect millions of Americans - savings plans for workers who don't have them, health insurance, training schemes and the minimum wage, just to name a few.

For poorer Americans improvements in any of those would make a huge difference.

There was very little foreign policy here and it came at the end of the hour-long address. But Mr Obama did make some news in telling Congress he would veto any new sanctions bill against Iran.

But here too, the tone of the speech was somehow smaller. The emphasis was on American diplomacy not American intervention. What Mr Obama wants to do abroad he will do it by talking - not with troops.

This was Mr Obama's last best chance to reset his presidency. I'm not sure he managed a major shift - I don't see his approval ratings suddenly soaring tomorrow as a result of what he said tonight.

But he showed where his focus is and made a compelling case for at least trying to improve social mobility - with or without Congress.