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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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