Obama goes on the attack

By Anna Fifield

President aims to get country behind him and ratchet up pressure on Republicans.

President Barack Obama challenged Congress to pass laws to overhaul the immigration system and clamp down on military-style guns. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama challenged Congress to pass laws to overhaul the immigration system and clamp down on military-style guns. Photo / AP

Barack Obama started his first term attempting to usher in a new era of bipartisanship in Washington.

Four years on, a remarkably greyer US President showed he has wised up to the ways of the capital, delivering a State of the Union address yesterday that practically dared Republicans to go against him.

"The American people don't expect government to solve every problem, they don't expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue," the President said in a speech that struck a combative tone, to the obvious displeasure of Republican Speaker John Boehner, sitting at his left shoulder.

"But they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can."

And with that, he challenged Congress to pass legislation to overhaul the broken immigration system and to clamp down on access to military-style guns and ammunition - both initiatives that win broad support in opinion polls.

He threatened to act on climate change if legislators don't, called on them to raise the minimum wage, and reform the tax code so "billionaires with high-powered accountants can't pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries".

This is the Obama that liberals were hoping to see swing into action four years ago. Now, knowing that he will never again have to run for election, it seems that his base has got the President they always wanted.

With echoes of the 99 per cent themes of the last few years, he offered an expansive vision for a Government that "works on behalf of the many and not just the few". This is not the kind of Government Republicans envisage, and this speech certainly did not offer any olive branches to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

He outlined a vision for boosting job creation and increasing incomes, and for offering better schooling, but did not offer details on how he would pay for them. At the same time, he stood his ground on his plan for cutting the deficit.

On tighter gun control - something that Republicans almost universally oppose - the President got the biggest applause of the night with his exhortations that victims of gun violence such as Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman, and the Newtown schoolchildren killed in December, deserve action.

On immigration reform, Obama told Congress: "Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away." That is tricky for many Republicans, who baulk at the idea of "rewarding" criminals with American passports.

Instead, the President pressed ahead in the knowledge that he has the support of the people - not just through the surprisingly strong victory he won at the polls in November, but through opinion surveys.

They show strong backing for his positions on gun control, immigration reform and economic justice (which Republicans call "class warfare").

It is notable that Obama's first move after his State of the Union is not to hold meetings with Republican leaders but to head out into the country and whip up public support for his proposals.

First stop, a factory in Asheville, North Carolina, where he will repeat his call to restore the strength to American manufacturing and the middle class. Then he's off to schools in Atlanta to press his case for better early childhood education. Obama will end up in Chicago, his hometown and a city renowned for its shooting deaths, to focus on his proposals to address gun violence.

It's a daring strategy. Obama is betting that he can get the country behind him and ratchet up the pressure on the Republican Party to fall into line.

He stands a chance of winning when it comes to immigration reform because Republicans have realised that they can no longer afford to alienate Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing part of the electorate.

Even Boehner and notable conservatives like Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, are now voicing support for comprehensive reform.

On other issues, however, this strategy could prove more risky. If Republicans refuse to budge, the President will face a choice between giving in and compromising, or standing his ground knowing that legislative gridlock will surely ensue. Both scenarios could imperil his goal of being remembered as a visionary President who was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers.

In Obama's speech

* Vows executive action unless Congress acts on climate change.

* Calls for immigration reform "in months".

* Shooting victims "deserve" vote on gun control.

* Sequester budget cuts "a really bad idea".

* Promises to launch three manufacturing hubs and create 15 more to spur manufacturing.

* By the end of 2014, US "war in Afghanistan will be over".

* 34,000 troops withdrawing over the year.

* Tells Iran "now is the time for a diplomatic solution".

* Promises to help allies meet evolving al-Qaeda threat.

* US to launch talks with European Union on free trade area.

* Vows "firm" action against North Korea "provocations".

* Vows to work with Russia to reduce nuclear arsenals.

Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is the US political correspondent for the Financial Times.


- NZ Herald

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