Rising above a state of disunion

The sheer bravura of United States President Barack Obama's delivery of his State of the Union address would have cheered and energised Democrats across the country. But they may be the only ones enraptured. Most of the faces in the House were stony, belonging to the Republicans who have seized control of Congress after a resounding win in last year's midterm elections. Most likely, their supporters were equally out of sorts to see Mr Obama's defiance, despite his lowest-ever average approval rating during his sixth year in office (with two to go), as measured by Gallup.

America's allies would be disappointed that Mr Obama's rousing "let's go" rallying call will go nowhere, given the likely continuation of ugly politics. And the nation's foes would gloat at any political pantomime that shows it up as a superpower tied up in knots till the next presidential election. To cynics, the only means of getting any substantial programmes off the ground now in America is by capturing the presidency and both houses of Congress. That is a distant hope. So, why can't Washington relearn the lost art of compromise that former president Bill Clinton exemplified, for example, in striking deals to effect welfare reform and deficit reduction?

For Asia, what would be gratifying to see is bipartisan cooperation in granting Mr Obama fast-track authority to wrap up free trade deals, notably the ambitious, US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership that involves 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region - a pact Singapore staunchly supports. Citing China as a fierce competitor out to steal a march on the US was a shrewd move, but Americans will need more convincing that such deals will create opportunities for US entrepreneurs and protect the middle class. Mr Obama ought to persevere in this effort.

The world will also be watching with interest the debate on how to give the middle class a boost amid wage stagnation and greater income inequality - clearly another pitch by Mr Obama to set the agenda for the presidential election. "The verdict is clear - middle-class economics works," he had declared, with reference to his measures. His critics would be right in saying, not so fast, Mr President.

Liberal economists have for over a decade bemoaned the thinning of the middle class - an issue reignited last year by French economist Thomas Piketty's Capital In The Twenty-First Century. But there is still no agreement over what strands of the debate could help shape coherent policy to ensure broad-based prosperity. The American experiment would be instructive if Mr Obama shows he's able to steer the effort above the ideologically riven realm of US politics.