The Obama they voted for

President’s fiscal plan comes down hard on the wealthy and unites the Democratic Party.

One trillion dollars in new taxes – and a staunch defence of the welfare state.

That was the profoundly partisan sentiment at the heart of President Obama's much-anticipated deficit reduction speech last night, as he laid out plans for spending cuts worth four trillion bucks over the next 12 years.

In the address at George Washington University, he laid the blame firmly on President Bush's administration – for spending trillions while giving the country's richest people even more in tax cuts. That, he said, had put America on a track it would take years to recover from – constantly spending more than it received.

Republicans, especially Tea Party activists, immediately accused him of playing catch-up, claiming he must have seen polls showing the public was behind their plans for sweeping $6trn cuts.

But this was also Obama's pledge to devise a cuts package that spread the pain – to protect those twin planks of social security protection, Medicare and Medicaid, albeit with some changes, and make richer Americans dig a bit deeper to pay for it.

Getting the poorest people to contribute more for their health coverage so the wealthiest got to keep a bit more of their wealth was just "not going to happen while I am president". A rallying cry, indeed, to spark his Democratic base after dismaying many liberals last week, when he agreed to a compromise deal for this year's budget involving some $38bn in cuts.

Obama did propose some pretty deep spending cuts of his own, of course – but they would come mainly from the federal defence budget, followed by health – and he promised that savings there would largely be made through lowering the cost of prescription drugs and concentrating on preventative treatment. Another trillion, he said, could also be saved by lowering interest payments on the federal debt. And the final trillion or so? Ending those Bush-era tax breaks.

New message of change

As several pundits have pointed out, Obama was also keen to promote a wider ideological message, one about the kind of America he wanted the country to be. He accused the Republicans – specifically Paul Ryan's plans to make such deep cuts in social security – of trying to "change the social compact" and being "deeply pessimistic" about America's future.

He appealed to a sense of community, citing Abraham Lincoln in his defence, as he outlined "a belief that we are all connected, and that there are some things we can only do as a nation". Instead of making the less fortunate even worse off, he argued, the role of government was to invest in America's people – all of them.

"We are a better country because of these commitments," he said. "I'll go further – we would not be a great country without [them]."

Liberals were mostly delighted by what the Washington Post called "the most ambitious defence [Obama] may ever have attempted of American liberalism and of what it means to be a Democrat".

This was the Obama many of them hoped for when they voted him into office on that wave of enthusiasm back in 2008.

The instant reaction from conservatives obviously wasn't favourable: one Republican, Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, hit out at what he saw as pure electioneeering.

"This wasn't a speech designed to win the future, this was a speech designed for the president to attempt to win re-election," Hensarling said. And other potentia 2012l presidential challengers lined up to offer their critique: Tim Pawlenty dismissed it as "little more than window-dressing", while Mitt Romney called it "too little too late".

The Republicans are also pressing ahead with their $6.4trn package of cut, putting proposals before Congress later this week. Even though it's likely to pass the House of Representatives, where the GOP has a majority, Democrats in the Senate will probably block it, arguing that such deep cuts could push the country back into recession.

And Obama has the power to wield his presidential veto. So although he talked about bipartisan agreement and regular meetings between leaders from both parties, the House Speaker, John Boehner, has firmly ruled out any plans to increase taxes as a "non-starter".

It could all come to a crunch when Congress has to vote on a technical issue – raising the $14.3trn debt limit ceiling – in a few weeks' time. The Republicans say they'll block it unless there's a deal to reduce the long-term deficit. That would officially put the United States into default, which would not only be embarrassing, but could have a profound impact on economies around the world.

Right now, neither side looks in the mood to compromise. At least Joe Biden – who looked as if he was snoozing through a large chunk of the speech – may have caught up on a bit of shut-eye while he had the chance.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.