Barack Obama plans to use his state of the union speech on Tuesday to kickstart an ambitious second term-agenda with commitments to immigration reform, gun control, cuts in nuclear weapons stockpiles and, above all, the economic recovery that eluded him over the past four years.
The speech presents Obama with a rare opportunity to rally the country behind his objectives, free of the constraints of the next wave of elections. But however ambitious his plans, the president still faces the challenge of getting some of the most contentious of those past a House of Representatives under Republican control.
The White House has made it known that Obama will focus on strategies to strengthen the American middle class as a means of improving the economy.
Obama told congressional Democrats last Thursday that his state of the union address will keep job creation at the heart of that goal.
“I’m going to be talking about making sure that we’re focused on job creation here in the United States of America. It means that we’re focused on education, and that every young person is equipped with the skills they need to compete in the 21st century. It means that we’ve got an energy agenda that can make us less dependent on foreign oil, but also that we’re cultivating the kind of clean energy strategy that will maintain our leadership well into the future,” the president said.
“It means that we’re going to talk about, yes, deficits and taxes, and sequesters and potential government shutdowns and debt ceiling — we’ll talk about that stuff, but all from the perspective of how are we making sure that somebody who works hard in this country – a cop, or a teacher, or a construction worker, or a receptionist – that they can make it if they work hard, and that their kids can make it and dream even bigger dreams than they have achieved.”
The president flagged up other priorities, too. He intends to push for some form of gun control in the wake of the Newtown shooting, although he recognised such measures will be limited.
“We’ve got to be mindful about steps we can take to end the cycle of gun violence in this country. And we should do so recognising that, again, there are regional differences here and we should respect those. Guns mean something different for somebody who grew up on a farm in a rural community than somebody who grew up in an inner city, and they’re different realities and we have to respect them,” he said.
“But what we know is: the majority of responsible gun owners recognise we cannot have a situation in which 20 more of our children, or 100 more of our children, or 1,000 more of our children are shot and killed in a senseless fashion, and that there are some common-sense steps that we can take and build a consensus around. And we cannot shy away from taking those steps.”
The New York Times reported on Monday that Obama will also use his speech to press for drastically reducing nuclear arsenals around the world after he won the agreement of the US military that the American stockpile can be cut by about a third.
Obama told Democratic members of Congress that he will be “pushing hard” for early immigration reform.
“Obviously economic growth is a priority. But making sure that we’re opening up opportunity for everybody is also important. And that’s why immigration reform is so critical. I said this is going to be a top priority and an early priority of my administration. I am heartened to see Republicans and Democrats starting to be in a serious conversation about getting this done,” he said.
“Now is the time. I recognise that the politics aren’t always easy. There are regional variations. I understand that in some places this may end up being a tough issue.”
The president has sought to placate voters hostile to immigration reform with a pledge that strong border security, more severe penalties for companies hiring undocumented immigrants, and a requirement for those who have been working illegally to pay back taxes will be a key component of any new law. But Obama added that it was important to give millions of people living in the US without the necessary authorisation a path to legal residence.
Obama hopes to exploit the shifting Republican attitude to immigration as the GOP attempts to win back Hispanic voters driven away by hostile legalisation and rhetoric.
Tellingly, the Republicans have chosen Senator Marco Rubio, a migrant from Cuba who has been critical of his party’s position on immigration, to give the rebuttal speech to Obama in English and Spanish.
But Larry Sabato, the director of the Centre for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Obama still faces the reality of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Sabato noted that President George W Bush recognised the need for immigration reform but was unable to carry it through.
“It’s always been the details that have sunk immigration reform,” he said. “In theory, just about everybody agreed that something needed to be done, and then the details took over. It really is a problem and you’re about to see this again. If we get any reform at all, it’s not going to be of a comprehensive nature.”
Sabato said that is reflective of a wider problem for the president.
However powerful Obama’s speech, he still faces a House of Representatives under Republican control.
“There are certain political realities that can never be changed.
“What’s done on election night is done. You will not remove for the next two years the Republican majority in the House, and probably not for the rest of the decade. Therefore, Obama would have to employ magic words to change the basic reality which is going to keep him from getting a great deal of his agenda accomplished in the second term,” he said.
“What he can do in a speech like this is to continue to energise his base so that they will support executive actions, independent executive actions, whether they’re executive orders, whether they’re decisions about foreign policy. He can encourage certain trends in society, for example the increasing support for gay rights. That he can encourage with rhetoric but in terms of what he can do with the legislature, this state of the union address will prove virtually useless.”
There is an attempt my some members of Congress to overcome the entrenched partisan divide. About 40, who have united as a group organising themselves as “No Labels Problem Solvers”, will wear badges to the state of the nation speech declaring: “Stop Fighting, Start Fixing”.