In his State of the Union address, President Obama tried to rediscover the political narrative of his presidency – that America can be great again, writes Channel 4 News sub-editor Felicity Spector.
And now… win the future. Last night’s State of the Union address might not have been a flight of rhetoric – although some 84 per cent of Americans seem to have approved the message, according to instant polls.
But it was President Obama‘s attempt to retell the American story – putting a visionary and ambitious government at the heart of its economic future.
For this was not just about winning the future – but winning the future election: what Obama was aiming to do was to define the key ideological debate between Democrats and Republicans, about cuts, spending and the role of government.
That’s the theory behind Obama’s “Sputnik moment”, a moment he’d already defined in a speech back in December, this generation’s duty, if you like, to push forward innovation and investment, in order to preserve America’s place in the world. It’s his central argument against the Republicans – who say the only way to let business flourish and create jobs and wealth is to slash taxes and get government out of the way.
Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you’ll feel the impact. Barack Obama
“Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you’ll feel the impact.”
Normally, the divisions in Congress are mirrored by the seating – the two parties, separated by more than just an aisle, creating a partisan wave which undulates between standing in applause, and sitting in grim silence, depending whether you’re on the president’s side or not. This time it was harder to tell – as members of both houses deliberately sat together, in a gesture of unity after the Tucson attack.
More from Channel 4 News: Obama urges political unity in State of the Union, writes Washington Correspondent Sarah Smith
But it was very much a gesture – for all the talk of civility in politics, and the overtures towards the centre ground – there’s no disguising the fact that there is a real political fight ahead – and the next stop is February’s budget. And Obama made the battle lines clear: “I recognise that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I’m willing to eliminate what we can honestly afford to do without. But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it onthe backs of our most vulnerable”.
Unemployment has increased and remains high, families and businesses are still struggling and our national debt continues to skyrocket. Jim DeMint
The Republicans, of course, have proposed slashing the budget by $100 billion a year – and in his State of the Union response, the GOP’s point man on those spending cuts, Paul Ryan, berated the administration for splurging cash in the face of the rising deficit: “Instead of restoring the fundamentals of economic growth, he engaged in a stimulus spending spree that not only failed to deliver on its promise to create jobs, but also plunged us even deeper into debt.”
Now both messages could prove hard to sell to an electorate deeply sceptical about political promises. Obama’s “spend your way out of recession” argument didn’t resonate much with voters back in November – not with the jobless figures so stubbornly high, and so many families losing their homes.
That’s why last night the Tea Party-supporting Senator Jim DeMint dubbed the speech “The State of the Stimulus”.
“Two years after the president’s nearly trillion dollar stimulus”, he said, “unemployment has increased and remains high, families and businesses are still struggling and our national debt continues to skyrocket.” Another congressman, Paul Brown, tweeted his supporters “Mr President, you don’t believe in the constitution. You believe in socialism.”
But the GOP “cuts and more cuts” strategy might not be any easier to swallow either: and if there weren’t many specifics in Obama’s address – there were no new fiscal ideas in Paul Ryan’s either. Instead he talked about a “crushing burden” of debt-warning that it would grow to “catastrophic levels”.
The White House is hoping that the old political adage is true – that optimism trumps pessimism every time. Instead of painting a gloomy picture of the future, Obama tried to offer hope: to rediscover the political narrative of his presidency. America can be great again, he suggested – but it needs a government, with the vision and the courage, to make it happen.
Felicity Spector is a chief sub-editor with Channel 4 News.