Rebuilding a presidency

United States President Barack Obama adopted a tough tone for his State of the Union speech this week as he sought to rebuild his presidency and prepare to leave a lasting legacy.

Mr Obama was elected on a wave of hope and populism.

The then young president was seen as someone who was going to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the US, including getting troops out of Afghanistan, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, lifting employment numbers and introducing healthcare for the millions of Americans without the funds to buy private insurance.

Mr Obama, entered the White House determined to achieve much, but now finds himself five years later battling a gridlock on Capitol Hill and facing using executive orders to push his agenda.

Already, cartoonists are labelling him a ''lame duck'' president, a term assigned to a president in his last part of his last possible term. By law, presidents can only run for two terms and Mr Obama's ends in 2016.

Promising a ''year of action'', Mr Obama who is mired in low approval ratings, used his annual address to chart a new path. But the defiant with-or-without-Congress approach was more assertive than any of the individual policies he advanced.

The president stayed away from the kind of bold, detailed proposals some lawmakers and media pundits said beforehand would shake up his relationship with Congress, according to legal experts.

He vowed to act on his own but offered modest or vague ideas that hardly stretched what Americans think of as a president's power, and were unlikely to send business organisations rushing to file many lawsuits in courthouses.

His proposals to go it alone included a minimum wage increase for federal contract workers, creation of a ''starter savings account'' to help millions of people save for retirement and plans to establish new fuel efficiency standards for trucks.

He touched on foreign policy, asserting ''American diplomacy backed up by the threat of force'' had forced Syria to give up chemical weapons and American diplomacy had brought Iran to the negotiating table.

The main thrust of the message centred on the wide gap between the wealthiest and other Americans as he positioned himself as a champion of those left behind in the modern economy.

Mr Obama is gambling a series of ideas that seem small change on their own will add up to a larger collective vision of an America with expanded opportunity.

But the moderate ambitions are a stark contrast to past years when he proposed sweeping legislation to remake the nation's healthcare system, regulate Wall Street, curb climate change and restrict access to high-powered firearms.

After a year in which most of his legislative priorities, like gun control, went nowhere, Mr Obama has made it clear he has restrained expectations about his ability to compromise with Republicans in the House.

By the numbers, Mr Obama has so far been moderate in his use of executive power.

The 147 executive orders he issued in his first term were the fewest of any president over a similar period going back at least a century. But observers say the numbers matter less than the scope of the ones he has signed.

Mr Obama has unilaterally deferred deportation of younger illegal immigrants, delayed enforcement of his healthcare law and declined to defend legal challenges against the Defense of Marriage Act, a law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Mr Obama's allies say he cannot stand aside while Republicans - driven by political calculations - block worthwhile legislation with widespread popular support.

The president started his first term promoting a brand of politics stretching across the political divide. As he enters the last phase of his presidency, Mr Obama now finds himself resorting to executive orders to achieve what he had in mind.

 

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