If you think British politics is broken, just look across the Atlantic to see how dysfunctional things can really become. Since the Republicans seized control of the Senate in November, the gridlock in Washington has become even worse. The Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives are set to spend time and money debating legislation, only for the White House to veto it.
In his sixth State of the Union (SOTU) address last night — the rough equivalent of the Queen’s Speech here — Barack Obama killed off any hopes of bipartisanship. The president pointed to the priorities set out by the Republicans and set out why he doesn’t intend to work with them.
On the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, a long-held priority for Republicans, Obama said ‘let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.’ On Iran, the president said new sanctions passed by Congress ‘will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.’
On cyber warfare, he urged Congress to 'finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks.’ ‘We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurances’ he said in reference to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Congress has yet to extend.
His key announcements were more in line with traditional Democratic concerns: helping the middle class (in the American sense of the term), tax hikes for the rich and action on climate change. But his address had a valedictory tone. Obama set about taking credit for America's economic recovery – arguing his policies have been justified:
‘Tonight, we turn the page. Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before. More of our people are insured than ever before. And we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years.’
That last point is where the real story lies. The recent drop in oil prices has been the key factor in restoring confidence in the American economy — rather than Obama’s policies.
Like most of his pronouncements over the last year, the SOTU was all about securing his legacy. As the Washington Post notes, the president has committed himself to being remembered as a strong liberal. Despite the challenges in and outside of Washington, Obama reaffirmed his optimism about the future:
‘We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page.’
With the candidates already limbering up for the 2016 presidential race, he is right that it does feel like a page is being turned in American politics — but to one that does not include Obama.