Defiant Obama speech draws battle lines

 

President Obama gave Gabrielle Giffords a warm hug as he approached the podium

The State of the Union speech is always something of an occasion.

There are those members of Congress who sit for ages in the aisle seats hoping for a presidential clap on the back or shake of the hand. But this time something was rather different.

The emotional temperature soared as Barack Obama hugged Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot in Arizona, who survived against the odds, who has made a miraculous but not full recovery and who has just resigned her seat to concentrate on getting better. He rocked her from side to side in a wordless greeting. Congress erupted in applause.

As an outpouring of genuine human emotion it was moving. As an image for the occasion it was a bit too accurate. The president needed to summon the spirit of defiant optimism against obvious adversity. He could hardly pretend America has fully recovered from its trauma but in this election year he had to inject a note of optimism, talking about manufacturers creating jobs for the first time since the late 90s. He answered critics who accuse him of presiding over decline with the line "America is back".

But not going back. There was a quasi refrain, not fully realised, of "I will not go back". Overall, the tone was not offensive but it was defiant, a defence of what he has done and what he wants to do.

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What's at stake, he said, are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values”

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It must be something of a headache for those who had to help the president write this speech. There's a temptation to cover all the bases, cram everything in. It is a temptation they yielded to this year, throwing in the kitchen sink and a couple of spare wash basins as well. Immigration? Check. Standing up to China? Check. Green energy? Check. A whole host of small measures to help the economy that put Republicans on the spot? Check. Broken Washington? Check.

Two visions of American

But the advisers know the TV networks will cut out the boring bits and boil it down to a handful of sound bites. So at the heart of this speech is a president, defiant. Defending the role of government and what he wants it to do. All the Republican candidates blame what they call Mr Obama's big government for America's economic woes. He defended the role of the federal government - nurturing research, investing in education, setting the rules to establish fairness. Ah, fairness.

He was defiant too, about the different visions on offer in the election. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well - while a growing number of Americans barely get by - or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What's at stake, he said, are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.

Republicans call this class warfare - Mr Obama says it is common sense. They want to take back their country - he wants to reclaim its values. Playing at being non-partisan is an important piety in American politics but it's for the birds. There really are two very different visions of what America should be.

This was not a campaign speech, as some might claim. But it was a blueprint for the campaign. The defences and the attack lines, the apparent compromises and the stealing of opponents clothes, they're all in there. It was in prose, not poetry, shorn of heady rhetoric. These are Mr Obama's battle lines - his tactics, not his war cry.

 
Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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