US & Canada

State of the Union speech a lecture for Republicans

  • 13 February 2013
  • From the section US & Canada
  • comments
President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in Washington DC 12 February 2013

US President Barack Obama made his way through the throng of friends and supporters smiling broadly, the very picture of good humour, slapping backs, grasping hands, patting elbows, kissing, hugging, greeting supporters.

But his tone from the podium was rather different. As he set out a full-blown progressive agenda, he lectured Republicans in Congress.

At first his focus was on the economy. His philosophy was clear - only investment and spending would ensure a rising, thriving middle class. This was, in parts, a thickly detailed speech.

Yet through it ran a simple chorus: "Lets get it done", "Send me a bill," "I will sign it", "Take a vote".

Those hoping for a more conciliatory tone than his notably aggressive inaugural speech were disappointed.

'They deserve a vote'

Mr Obama threw down challenge after challenge to his opponents.

He warned that the automatic spending cuts that come into effect at the beginning of next month would damage the economy.

He urged more spending on pre-school education, high schools and training.

He announced a plan to spend $70bn (£44bn) to rebuild roads and bridges.

He called for tax reform. Immigration reform. Raising the minimum wage.

And he argued passionately for gun control.

If the focus was, as spun, the economy, the most emotional moment was Mr Obama's refrain for the victims of gun violence: "They deserve a vote".

People were on their feet, some crying.

There is still a central mystery to me about all of this. The support of the Democratic party, even the support of the bulk of Americans, does not win votes in the House of Representatives.

Mr Obama's speech certainly has cast Congress as the villain if they do not act, but that does not ensure victory on a single one of his proposals.

It might just turn out that Mr Obama's speech is not the one remembered from this night.

Obama's best hope

Republican Senator Marco Rubio gave his party's reply to the State of the Union and it was strikingly different from anything I have heard from his party in the three years I have been here.

That is perhaps a measure of how far they have drifted away from those they need to attract.

The son of Cuban immigrants said that he was standing up not for the rich but for his neighbours, for immigrants, and retired people who depend on federal pensions and Medicare, free healthcare for seniors.

Mr Rubio said he would never harm Medicare - it had provided dignity for his dad as he died of cancer, and his mum depended on it now.

His message of smaller government and lower taxation was familiar. But the tone, the setting, the appeal to the less well-off - all were so different to anything Romney said during the election that it really stood out.

This perhaps is Mr Obama's best hope - that those Republicans who feel a need for reform may heed some of his pleas for votes for his plans.

More on this story