State of the Union: Some new tunes, and greatest hits

President Barack Obama greets members of Congress after delivering the State of the Union address in the House chamber Image copyright Getty Images

For a president who only two months ago suffered a crushing defeat in the mid-term election, this was a State of the Union speech brimming with confidence, even defiance.

He made the argument that the US economy was on the up.

And now he wanted the wealth shared more evenly.

His prescription: Tax increases for the wealthiest, so that help would reach the blue-collar workers, the small businessmen and women.

He called for a higher minimum wage and the expansion of childcare, and free community college education for students who do well.

America, he said, had turned a page

On foreign policy, the president said America would continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks.

On Cuba, he defended his new approach saying "when what you're doing doesn't work for 50 years, it's time to try something new".

He demanded legislation to deal with the the threat of cyber attacks, which might be one area where Congress and White House may be able to work together.

But most of this speech must be seen as essentially aspirational given the Republican control of both houses of Congress - and their antipathy towards the president

So if this speech stands little chance of becoming legislative reality, what was it all about?

First of all legacy. This is a president who seems to be following Winston Churchill's maxim that history is written by the winners.

He wants it seen that HIS policies have led America to a far better place than it was in when he came to power at the height of the financial crisis.

And so he learnt from the rock stars who play a gig with a new album to sell. Yes, he played some new tunes - the closure of tax loopholes, the increase in tax credits and the like.

But some of the biggest applause came when he went to the back catalogue and replayed his greatest hits.

There was a massive cheer when he reminded his audience of the increase in the number of people who now have medical insurance - surely his signature legislative achievement,

He even repeated lines from old speeches - And there was a lot of "I did this" or "I did that". Maybe it was Sinatra he had in mind - the "I did it my way" moment.

But it is a State of the Union speech that is about framing an argument in the run up to the next presidential election.

And here I'm going to move from Sinatra to Clint Eastwood, or Dirty Harry more particularly, where he seems to be saying to the Republican-controlled Congress - over their threat to vote down his tax increases on the rich - "Go on, make my day."

What he wants - ideally - is for his proposals to be accepted - but if the Republicans vote down proposals that would have only affected the wealthiest 1% of Americans, then that allows Democrats to say - "well we are the party of the 99%". You can see the trap he is trying to set.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption John Boehner (right) tries to hide his displeasure

And if you have an hour to spare to watch the speech again. I urge you to do so, but not looking at the president.

Concentrate instead on the facial expressions of Republican Speaker John Boehner.

He tries to sit there poker faced, knowing that the camera is on him.

He fails by alternately wincing, eyebrow arching, lip curling - and generally looking as though he is suffering from a peptic ulcer.

It is my new way to gauge a political speech. You don't watch the person making it, but the opponent listening to it.

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