x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Obama tries to recapture zeal of the election in State of Union speech

US president says job creation is a top priority and vows to reform health care as he rekindles his message of hope for an anxious nation.

Barack Obama, with Tim Geithner, right, the US treasury secretary, defended the US$787 billion stimulus package in his speech.
Barack Obama, with Tim Geithner, right, the US treasury secretary, defended the US$787 billion stimulus package in his speech.

WASHINGTON // Delivering his first State of the Union address, Barack Obama on Wednesday set out to generate new momentum for his presidency and win back an American public that many believed was slipping from his grasp. To do that, he reverted to themes that dominated his presidential campaign, pledging to fight for the everyman against corporate interest, clean up Washington, bring bipartisanship and, of course, offering a message of hope.

"I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight," the president said, despite a year that was marked by financial uncertainty and declining support. "Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We don't allow fear or division to break our spirit." Mr Obama's remarks, his third to a joint session of Congress, comes at a volatile time in his presidency, as voters are increasingly concerned with rising unemployment and the sluggish economic recovery. Mr Obama acknowledged "setbacks" in his first year, saying some of them "were deserved", but he also justified his largest initiatives, including a $787 billion (Dh2.89 trillion) stimulus package, which he credited with stabilising the financial system.

For the majority of his 70 minutes at the podium, Mr Obama focused on the economy. He announced new efforts to control the federal deficit, impose fees on banks that received government bailouts, and, most importantly, create jobs, a top priority for voters. The goal of the address was two-fold: to sympathise with a surge in populist anger aimed at Washington and Wall Street while also explaining why his policies are the best way to address the concerns of ordinary Americans.

"Some are frustrated; some are angry. They don't understand why it seems like bad behaviour on Wall Street is rewarded but hard work on Main Street isn't; or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems," the president said. "I campaigned on the promise of change - change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change - or that I can deliver it."

Mr Obama unveiled a handful of job creation measures and said improving the unemployment rate is now his "number one" priority in 2010. Among the new initiatives is a plan to double US exports over the next five years, which he said would create two million jobs, and a proposal to provide tax credits to small business that hire workers or raise salaries. He also alluded to a building a network of high-speed rails across the country and talked of massive construction projects that will create jobs, such as new nuclear power plants and clean energy facilities.

"There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products," he said. Saying it would relieve the burden on middle-class families, Mr Obama pledged to move forward with his top domestic priority, healthcare reform, which is in serious jeopardy after Republicans won a 41st seat in the Senate this month - enough to block the legislation. He did not provide specifics on how he will proceed, or whether his party would force a bill through Congress, but he reminded his Democratic allies that they enjoy their largest majority in decades. "People expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills."

The possibility remains that Democrats could scale back the healthcare legislation and pursue incremental reforms, some of which may earn the support of Republicans. Mr Obama urged Republicans "to take another look" at the plan and said he hoped both sides would "come together" to find a bipartisan solution. "Do not walk away from reform. Not now," he said. Bipartisanship, as in his campaign, was an overarching theme of the address. Though both chambers of Congress are bitterly divided along party lines, Mr Obama said he will not give up on his pledge to change the tone of politics in Washington. Perhaps signalling a move to the centre, Mr Obama endorsed ideas traditionally supported by Republicans, including tax cuts, drilling for oil off the US coast, and a freeze on discretionary spending. Still, the president had some harsh words for the opposing party, which has voted in lockstep against his agenda. "Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership," he said.

As he made positive gestures to Republicans, other sections of Mr Obama's speech were clearly meant to shore up his Democratic base. He announced, for example, his plan to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which forbids gay soldiers from disclosing their sexual orientation. He had promised to end the policy during his campaign and his failure to do so in his first year stirred anger among liberals. The issue is sensitive for some military leaders and conservative groups which say relaxing the policy will lower morale of the troops and threaten "unit cohesion" in a time of war. Mr Obama devoted only a small portion of his speech to foreign policy, surprisingly for a president who spent much of his first year engaged in endeavours abroad and debating the war strategy in Afghanistan. He cited "unacceptable" security lapses that led to the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a US-bound jet, but also pointed to his administration success in fighting al Qa'eda.

"In the last year, hundreds of al Qa'eda's fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed - far more than in 2008," he said. Mr Obama said the continued defiance of Iran's leaders has led to its increased isolation, and he grouped the Islamic Republic with North Korea, warning of stiffer sanctions to come. "As Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences," he said. "That is a promise." sstanek@thenational.ae