Polls loom large in President's call to build on progress

US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, Jan 12, 2016.
US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, Jan 12, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

The United States presidential election in November may have been mentioned only in passing in President Barack Obama's address, but it clearly loomed large over the speech and much of what came after.

Observers noted that Mr Obama, in focusing his speech on the next five to 10 years instead of his final year in office, was trying to lay out the choice voters have before them.

With Republican candidates promising to dismantle much of Mr Obama's achievements if they are elected, he made the case that the US would be worse off if the progress he made was halted.

And it was clearly with billionaire Donald Trump's slogan "Make American great again" in mind that Mr Obama stressed America was great already. He described talk of the country's political decline as "hot air" and dismissed arguments that the US was getting weaker as its enemies got stronger.

"Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead - they call us."

Brookings Institution senior fellow William Galston was one analyst who noted the overt political nature of the speech despite its call to unity. "My first impression is that while Mr Obama's last State of the Union was civil and cordial, it was at heart a fighting speech. Yes, he identified some areas of common ground. But he gave no ground and offered no new bargains... that might build consensus across party lines," he said.

The implications of Mr Obama's speech on the election were clearly evident to Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton and many in the Republican Party as well.

She tweeted numerous times during the speech, calling on voters to support her to build on the progress made by Mr Obama. She also sent a fund-raising e-mail with the same message. "Our whole country should feel proud of the progress we've made in the past seven years. The question now is whether that progress will continue in 2017, or whether one of the Republicans will win the presidency and rip away everything we've worked for."

On the Republican side, there was a push to cast its own world view as the best one for America's future. In its official response to the address, the party did not dwell on attacking the speech but rather on painting its own vision of the future.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, chosen to deliver the response, went as far as to join Mr Obama in thinly veiled criticisms of Mr Trump. The party leadership has long been concerned about Mr Trump's impact on the party and on Tuesday, it pushed back.

"Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation," Ms Haley said.

"And as we usher in this new era, Republicans will stand up for our beliefs. If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we'd put the brakes on runaway spending and debt... We have big decisions to make. Our country is being tested."

Being his same brash self, Mr Trump tweeted: "The #SOTU speech is really boring, slow, lethargic - very hard to watch!"

Jeremy Au Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2016, with the headline 'Polls loom large in President's call to build on progress'. Print Edition | Subscribe