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.

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Leader: On capitalism and insecurity

The truth behind Philip Green's business practices is out, as Theresa May pledges to ensure the benefits of growth are shared amongst workers.

Although it sounds contradictory, we should count ourselves lucky to read about the hideous business practices at Sports Direct and the management failures that led to the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS). Such stories are hard to investigate and even harder to bring out into the open. That both firms were excoriated by select committees proves that parliament still has teeth.

It is less comforting to wonder why the two retailers were allowed to operate as they did in the first place. Sports Direct pursued “Victorian” working practices, according to Iain Wright, the chair of the committee on business, innovation and skills. The firm is being investigated over allegations that it did not pay the National Minimum Wage, while staff were treated in a “punitive” and “appalling” manner. They were penalised for taking breaks to drink water, and some claimed that they were promised permanent contracts in ­exchange for sexual favours.

Days later, another select committee castigated Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, describing what had happened at the company as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS – “systematic plunder”, according to the parliamentary report – even as its pension fund was accumulating a deficit of £571m. Although the committee also criticised Dominic Chappell, who bought BHS a year ago, it concluded: “The ultimate fate of the company was sealed on the day it was sold.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sports Direct and BHS as isolated cases. Yet there is an important connection between them and it is one that illuminates the tides in British politics. Both highlight how economic insecurity has become central to the lives of far too many people in the UK.

Sports Direct treated workers with contempt and left them terrified of losing their employment. The downfall of BHS, meanwhile, cost 11,000 workers their jobs and left its pensioners needing government assistance. Sir Philip Green retains his title, although the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called for it to be rescinded. After all, the committee found “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which he received his knighthood”.

In this climate, it is easy to understand the widespread mistrust of private companies. As the business, innovation and skills select committee report concluded: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way.”

Anger about the behaviour of companies such as BHS and Sports Direct is rife and was palpable during last month’s referendum on the European Union. In Bolsover, the constituency in which Sports Direct has its main warehouse, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the EU. Little wonder that voters there did not feel inclined to listen to warnings from the same big businesses that treated them and other people they knew so badly. The company, whose buildings occupied the site of a former coal tip pit, also relied on immigrants who would be less able to insist on employment rights.

Now that the problems have been elucidated so clearly, we must strive to find solutions. As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the hard-won labour gains of the 20th century – workers’ rights, provision of state pensions and the minimum wage – must be protected and expanded.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has rightly taken heed of public anger against corporate greed. She has pledged (in statements that could have come from Ed Miliband) to curb irresponsible behaviour and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared. She has supported ideas such as worker representatives on company boards and strengthening the power of shareholders by making their votes on director ­remuneration binding, rather than advisory.

While the Conservatives audaciously try to portray themselves as the “workers’ party”, Labour must campaign hard to ensure that Mrs May backs up her promising rhetoric with meaningful policies. For the good of the nation, business leaders such as Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct must be held to account for their actions.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue