State of the Union: Obama seizes his second term by the horns

Gun control was a clear priority in the President's speech.

It is traditional at a State of the Union address for one member of the president’s cabinet, in this case, Stephen Chu, the outgoing Energy Secretary, to watch the address not from the Capitol Building, where the president speaks to a joint session of congress, but from a bunker deep below Washington DC in case the unthinkable happens.

Chu is a scholarly man, an eminent scientist who won a Nobel prize in physics for his work in atomic cooling and trapping, and he is only the second Chinese-American to serve in the cabinet. From his bunker, he watched a State of the Union that was workmanlike and policy-heavy, one that laid down a heavy gauntlet to an often-recalcitrant Republican-dominated congress.

First Obama took a swipe at his opponents in the debt reduction negotiations, damning Republicans for asking “senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful.” Throughout this John Boehner, Obama’s political opposite, who this morning described the president as a man who "simply did not have what it takes" to get a bipartisan deal on debt reduction, glowered into the middle distance over Obama’s shoulder.

Then Obama did some more Delingpole-baiting, urging congress to pursue “a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on a few years ago.” The president had made a special point of singling out and shaking McCain’s hand on his way onto the capitol floor.

This was a workmanlike, policy-heavy speech. Immigration reform, education reform, sexual equality, cyber warfare, the Middle East and the Afghanistan drawdown were outlined with wonkish detail. No one, not Boehner or Stephen Chu underground awaiting catastrophe, were in any doubt – if any doubt were possible after his brash inaugural address – that this was a President looking to take his second term by the horns.

There were notable absences from the speech, however. Down in the bunker Stephen Chu, a proponent of nuclear power, was probably disappointed that nuclear got no mention as part of the president’s renewable energy plan. And gay rights advocates, flush from an inaugural address that promised real action on gay marriage, will be sorely disappointed that the issue received only the barest of oblique references.

Unlike the inaugural, where gay marriage took the headline role, Obama was yesterday back to what will become his defining topic: gun control. He spoke of Hadiya Pendleton, the young girl who performed at his inauguration and who was tragically shot and killed in Chicago just a week later. Her mother, Cleopatra Pendleton, sat at Michele Obama’s right hand.

“Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote,” Obama told congress, and his words and his tone echoed the heartbreaking speech he gave at the memorial service in Newtown, Conecticut. “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

That vote, on the gun control measures he laid out with Joe Biden earlier this year, is this president’s singular priority. Even Stephen Chu, in his bunker, could see that.

Barack Obama delivering the State of the Union speech. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496