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News Analysis: Obama delivers annual address amid U.S. jobs crisis, political gridlock

by Matthew Rusling

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 (Xinhua) -- President Barack Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address Tuesday night amid an ongoing U.S. jobs crisis, a widening income gap and the continuing political logjam in Washington.

Obama made an effort to showcase recent U.S. economic improvements, pointing to a manufacturing sector that is adding jobs and a surging oil industry, calling 2014 a "breakthrough" year for the country.

But while many metrics show an economy making a comeback, it still feels like a recession for large chunks of the population, with the labor participation rate at a decades-long low, millions without jobs and a growing rich-poor income gap.

Obama addressed those concerns in his nationally televised speech, saying those at the top had "never done better," but "upward mobility has stalled," adding too many Americans are out of work or just making ends meet.

"Our job is to reverse these trends," he said to applause. But with ongoing political deadlock, lawmakers are unlikely to pass any major legislation anytime soon, experts say.

"I'm not expecting to see any major legislation in the next year. Republicans in Congress are not going to go out of their way to enact the president's agenda," Michael Heaney, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, told Xinhua.

While Obama introduced a potpourri of proposals -- from producing more skilled workers to shifting to a greener energy economy -- the White House said in recent days the president might have to bypass Congress and act via executive order.

Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said the deeper presidents got into their second term, the more attractive executive power became.

"It is a way to get things done in an era when congress is unwilling to do much," Zelizer told Xinhua. "He ... is sending a clear message that he will act on his own if necessary."

Brookings Institution senior fellow Darrell West said Obama laid down the gauntlet to Congress. "If legislators don't act, he plans to issue a dozen executive orders that will push his policy initiatives. He no longer is going to wait for Republicans to act, but will address issues through agency actions," West said.

"He still needs Congress for big policy decisions like immigration, but will not spend the next three years doing nothing while policy problems get worse," he said.

Still, there was hope the House will move on immigration reform, West noted, adding that failure to tackle the nation's broken immigration system would make it hard for the Republican Party to get Latino support.

Other experts read Obama's approach as more non-confrontational. Christopher Galdieri, assistant professor at Saint Anselm College, told Xinhua the president's language throughout the speech showed he was willing to work with Congress on his policy priorities.

"As predicted, he made many references to actions he is taking or could take through his executive authority," he said. "But he presented them more like actions that would complement Congressional action rather than as ultimatums or replacements for Congressional action."


Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, said the fortunes of presidents rose and fell on the economy, and so it should be no surprise Obama focused on plans to strengthen the economy.

"By focusing on education and training to help build a more internationally competitive workforce, Obama hopes to restore the optimism that has long defined American public opinion regarding the nation's future," Farnsworth told Xinhua.

Unlike in previous years, though, Obama focused on things that could be done without the agreement of Congress, he said.

Other experts said the speech was an effort to galvanize the president's democratic base in the run-up to the 2014 Congressional elections.

"Almost everything he pushed was an item that does not divide his own party, which needs to be unified for the fall elections," Paul Ferber, professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology, told Xinhua.


Experts say just one speech is unlikely to significantly boost Obama's numbers, which stand at 43 percent approval amid the lead-up to the 2014 Congressional elections. To add to his woes, there is a real danger of the president becoming a lame duck in his final years in office.

The disastrous rollout of Obama's landmark healthcare overhaul, or Obamacare, has played a role in this, hurting his credibility and causing his poll numbers to plunge, although, if things improve, voters may forget the fiasco come the election day.

Republican strategist Ford O'Connell told Xinhua Obama's speech was an effort to "put a positive spin on a bad situation," and the address was more about appearance than substance ahead of the elections.

"I think he realized he's on the verge of being a lame duck president but he also recognized the importance of having an upbeat, hopeful tone," he said.

While Obama spoke in his speech of getting Americans back to work, some experts said voters might have grown tired of Obama's characteristic uplifting rhetoric and want to see real results, in the form of more jobs, faster growth and higher wages.

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