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.

Photo: Getty
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.