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Last-chance saloon?

Gero Schliess, Washington / ng, reJanuary 29, 2014

After a difficult 2013, has Obama managed to turn a corner with his State of the Union address? Will it silence his critics or will the president continue to face resistance?

Barack Obama Rede zur Lage der Nation 2014
Image: Reuters

"It was a speech of a president who understands he's got some serious challenges," Matthew Duss of the Center for American Progress told DW. "He has experienced some real frustration with a Congress that has behaved in a really obstructionist way."

"We have seen a president who made clear that he is going to continue to try to find areas of agreement and cooperation with the Congress. But he also made clear that he is looking at the same time for opportunities to advance his agenda independently of Congress," Duss added.

Bread-and-butter speech

Obama's PR team had raised expectations in the run-up to the speech, but despite the president's rhetoric qualities it was merely a "bread-and-butter" speech in the end. With topics ranging from affordable education, immigration, Guantanamo, environmental protection and raising the minimum wage he offered a lot for many.

"If we're talking about the chances of much happening because of it [the speech], you have to say, the chances are limited," Stephen Hess from the Brookings Institute told DW. "He is standing there, in front of a Congress, at least on the House [of Representatives - the ed.] side that has made it clear that they're… not supporting him."

Obama's difficult position

Obama's fifth State of the Union address was his longest and arguably his most difficult. Despite the economy doing reasonably well and unemployment falling, his approval rates are low and the number of failed or mismanaged bills he has tried to push through is high.

The Washington Post took great pleasure in ripping to shreds the announcement of last year's State of the Union address. Only five out of 24 proposals had been implemented, the others were rejected by Congress, it said. No wonder, then, that the president repeated them in this year's speech. In an effort to to prove that he is determined to act, he has said he would bypass Congress.

'A terrible year'

"I think he has no choice," Hess told DW. "Last year, having just won a substantial re-election and feeling good - that that gave him momentum - he made some big proposals and the result was a terrible year."

"His hope for gun control didn't happen, his hope for immigration reform didn't happen, and on top of that, a very bad situation in the rollout of his health plan - he can't rely on the Congress this year," he added.

"If he is to have any achievements, he's got to do it on his own," Hess believes. "The question is, how much power is there in the presidency to do these things on their own?"

There are a lot of little things he can do, Hess told DW, but in the end, they don't add up to major or sustainable achievements.

Left-wing agenda

One of the speech's main themes was social injustice. Obama announced that he would raise the minimum wage for federal workers even if Congress won't do it for everyone.

Caretakers and builders on new federal contracts are to take home $10.10 (7.40 euros) per hour instead of the current $7.25 per hour. As a result Duss believes Obama's strategy for the mid-term elections is following a left-wing agenda.

"The focus on economic inequality is a very longstanding, major issue of the progressive Left. This something he has a great history of in his own career as a community organizer in Chicago."

Former diplomat Frank Loy agrees. "Firstly, the minimum wage part, secondly, his raising of the issue of modifying the laws relating to guns…his very strong statement on climate change is another one on that category, and his support of diplomacy in dealing with Iran."

No leadership, says McCain

The fact that the crises in Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Iraq made up a large part of Obama's speech, is noteworthy. Obama confirmed the end of the military mission in Afghanistan for the end of this year, but he said a small contingent would stay in the country.

Obama's tendency to favor a diplomatic solution is often unpopular among Republicans. Senator John McCain spoke to DW ahead of the speech, accusing Obama of a lack of leadership.

"It's been non-existent as far as national security [is concerned]. All he says is he wants out. He said he wanted out of Iraq and he got out. He said he wanted out of Afghanistan and, despite what you may hear, they still haven't said the number of troops they want to leave behind" McCain said.

"There's no leadership. It's a shameful chapter in American history," he added.

Loy disagrees with McCain, but he admits there is a risk in Afghanistan. "We continue our draw-down of troops and chaos breaks out in parts of the country. Because the Afghan police forces are not able to control that, I think there is that risk," he said, emphasizing that the risk would still be there if "we stayed another five years."