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Obama prioritises jobs in key speech



By Richard Lister
BBC News, Washington

President Obama with Vice-President Biden in the background
The moments of laughter were few and far between

This was a sober speech for serious times. The Barack Obama who stood at the podium to give his first State of the Union address seemed older, more weary and more irritated than the man who swept into office a year ago on a rising tide of hope and change.

Over the past year, that tide has developed a dangerous undertow, threatening to drag Mr Obama down beneath waves of frustration and anger with Washington.

In truth, it is the same frustration and anger that swirled around the Bush Administration and the Republican-led Congress; a feeling that Washington politicians seemed too far removed from the problems of the people they governed.

With plummeting poll ratings and widespread criticism for appearing too detached in the face of the pain of 15 million unemployed, this was President Obama's chance to acknowledge that he understands that anger, and is working to assuage it.

Mantra of change

In a reference to the great battle cry of his campaign, he admitted that "for these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough".

He spent much of his speech focussed on those who have lost jobs and livelihoods, identifying himself with their cause and their frustrations much as he did on the campaign trail - trying to recapture that spirit of the Washington outsider ready to take on the system.

Of course, he is integral to the system now but when it came to the question of who was to blame for the mood of national disaffection, he was defensive about his own role.

He had inherited the economic problems from the "previous administration" with its unpaid-for wars, tax cuts and spending sprees.

He pointed his finger at Congress for failing to act, and bankers for their reluctance to invest in small businesses.

Bipartisan appeal

He scolded his own party for in effect squandering its majorities: "People expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills". And he scolded the Republicans for "just saying no to everything".

People watching President Obama deliver his speech
The president appealed to voters to give change more time

But he also acknowledged the new political landscape. The fact that Democrats no longer have the "supermajority" needed to overcome Republican policy objections means he will have to foster a more inclusive political environment if he wants to get legislation through.

He was careful to sprinkle his address with morsels designed to appeal to the opposition party: a raft of new tax cuts for small businesses, a pledge to look again at offshore drilling and a new generation of nuclear power plants.

He promised monthly meetings with Congressional leaders from both parties

After a year of bitter partisan division he called for new co-operation and a spirit of "common sense". "What frustrates the American people", he said "is a Washington where every day is Election Day".

Hurdles ahead

But when it came to the partisan logjam over healthcare reform, the president had little new to offer other than a plea for both sides to "take another look at the plan we've proposed".

That plan has the unanimous opposition of Republicans at the moment, for the simple fact that they are philosophically opposed to the kind of reforms it contains.

A second look will not eradicate those objections and for all the calls for a new spirit of bipartisanship, there is little incentive for the Republicans to help Democrats with their legislative agenda in an election year. Particularly when the Republicans seem to have political momentum on their side.

That means President Obama may also be facing potential hurdles with the centrepiece of his legislative agenda for the year: a job creation bill which he said he wanted on his desk "without delay".

Republicans have criticised the legislation Democrats are sponsoring as costly and ineffective.

'Disappointed parent'

And both parties dislike the president's steps towards deficit reduction. They voted down the debt commission the White House wanted (Mr Obama said he would establish his own, but it will have few teeth).

Both parties have also attacked the president's plan for a limited freeze on domestic spending: Democrats because it goes too far and too selectively, Republicans because it doesn't go far enough.

In the minutes before the final, inevitable, standing ovation, the Congressional audience listened to the president in almost complete silence as he assumed the role of disappointed parent looking over a bad end-of-term report.

"No wonder there's so much cynicism out there. No wonder there's so much disappointment," he said to the assembled lawmakers.

And to the people of America he said: "I never suggested that change would be easy or that I can do it alone."

Indeed, it was a point he made regularly on the campaign trail and a year into his presidency, America now knows what that looks like.



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