The Sydney Morning Herald

By Jonathan Bradley

Barack Obama's State of the Union address was the culmination of a two-month effort on the US President's part to stave off the lame-duck stage of his presidency: that period when an ageing leader loses influence, and the attentions of the public turn to his potential successor.

Much of the news from this address was not unveiled in the speech, but had been released in stages by a President determined to show he still matters.

The congressional elections of 2014 were a decided rebuke to President Obama, with Republicans gaining their largest majority in the lower house since 1928 and taking control of the Senate for the first time since 2006.

Rather than being cowed by his midterm losses, the President revealed a new energy. The week after the midterms, Obama announced a historic climate change agreement with China. He followed that with the unexpected declaration that the US would give diplomatic recognition to Cuba for the first time in 50 years, while the lead-up to the address saw a flurry of policy proposals, with Obama flagging reforms to education, tax, and workplace benefits as priorities.

It's an ambitious agenda, and one that will remain for good part a theoretical one. Republicans have no more desire now to permit the President to raise taxes or require businesses to give workers sick leave than before they controlled Congress. Obama will try to enact parts of his agenda through executive action, as he did last year with new measures on immigration and climate change, but his ability to make big changes via this route is greatly constrained.

For all his new proposals, Obama also underlined his intention not to permit Congress to rob him of his political momentum. He threatened multiple times to use his power to veto legislation if Republicans try to push through laws undermining his achievements. On climate change, he was firm, vowing, "I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts."

Obama's efforts are more about maintaining his presidential prerogative to set the political agenda and to lay the groundwork for his successor.

Much of the address was concerned with legacy. A lot of the speech looked back on Obama's past achievements, and exulting in the economic growth that has finally helped Americans dispel the grim atmosphere that pervaded the country in the wake of the financial crisis.

"Our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999," Obama bragged – a change of tone for a leader who has spent more time in office feeling voters' pain than celebrating his successes.

By the end of the speech, he was even hearkening fondly back to the 2004 address before the Democratic National Convention that spectacularly launched his national political career, and rebuking critics who say that his presidency hasn't been the unifying, post-partisan force he hoped it would be.

Over the past few years, Democrats have been increasingly concerned that their party had little new on its agenda. Having achieved their long-held ambition of giving the US almost universal healthcare and ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were growing murmurs that Democrats had no goals beyond seeing Hillary Clinton elected in 2016.

As the party's leader and figurehead, President Obama signalled they have more to do. The next Democratic presidential candidate will inherit the slate of policy objectives laid out in the speech, from giving all Americans access to two free years of community college to expanding access to childcare, along with passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

"I have no more campaigns to run," the President declared, to a smattering of applause from his opponents. Then he departed from his prepared text: "I know, cause I won both of 'em."

This year's State of the Union address presaged his project for the next two years: bedding down that legacy by ensuring the next president builds on his accomplishments rather than dismantles them.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald