It’s one of the advantages of an incumbent US president: in an election year you give The State of the Union address in January and can promote yourself and your party with the whole of the country’s press listening in and no one to interrupt. The tiny chamber of the House of Representatives is for once full to the brim and this along with the ornate setting adds a buzz to your message. Camera’s will also focus on your wife so why not tactically place guests nearby who add a subliminal extra-something to your speech. Barack Obama took full advantage of the situation on Tuesday 24th January as he delivered his address.
Newt Gingrich might mock him for his use of a tele-prompter but Barack Obama can write and deliver a speech like very few other people. He started and ended with mentions of the military for which all Americans have such high regard – a clever tactic especially after a fairly successful year for the armed forces – Bin Laden killed, Gadaffi dead with the aid of US airpower and the troops home from Iraq.
He proceeded to insist that ‘if you make more than $1 million a year you should not pay less than 30% in taxes’ – a well-timed comment given that Mitt Romney, the long-time favourite to win the Republican Presidential Nomination, released his tax return yesterday showing that he paid only 14% tax in 2010 on an income of $27 million.
Just to lighten the mood Obama even threw in a joke: ‘We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill – because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.’
The President possesses an ear for soundbites. He made a reference to the American Dream - ”the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement. The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive.’ Later he moved on to Kennedy’s ‘Ask not… quote saying: “Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed.’
In a poignant ending worthy of an Oscar-winning film script, he praised the teamwork of the servicemen who killed Bin Laden and urged US citizens and Congress to act in the same manner: ‘The mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other – because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back. So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those fifty stars and those thirteen stripes. No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.’
Who sat next to Michelle Obama and what silent message did the President send by placing them there? You’d be hard put to find a more heroic and warmly welcomed figure in Congress than Gaby Giffords, the Democratic Governor of Arizona who was shot two years ago and is still in recovery. She had taken her seat with other Governors and Congressmen in the House chamber but her husband, Mark Kelly, sat next to the First Lady in the viewing gallery. Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs was also nearby as was Warren Buffett’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek, who famously pays a higher tax rate than her billionaire employer – a fact that didn’t go unmentioned in Obama’s speech. The three of them inspired thoughts of courage, entrepreneurship and the unfairness of the US tax system. Rather a stroke of genius.
So the gloves are off. Obama has started his campaign for re-election with a rousing speech and supporters who add sparkle to his message. Let’s hope we have a fair fight.