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Gary Younge
State of the union: President Obama addresses inequality

If you want to understand the relevance of President Barack Obama's state of the union message look at where he's off to tomorrow. First, Iowa; then, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan. All swing states. All, with the exception of Arizona, which was John McCain's home state, he won comfortably four years ago. It was an election speech, for an incumbent playing defence.

As such, this state of the union speech should be measured against two benchmarks: the traditional setpiece, highly choreographed, presidential, made for TV; and the speeches coming out of the Republican slugfest that just moved to Florida.

On the latter point, he has, at this point, little to fear. While Mitt Romney's released tax returns revealed a multimillionaire paying just 14% tax, Obama addressed the issue of inequality:

"Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households."

While Newt Gingrich was claiming Obama paints a craven figure on the world stage, Obama twice reminded the nation of his most popular accomplishment thus far: assassinating Osama Bin Laden:

"All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves."

For the ability to appear head and shoulders above his potential challengers, he can partly thank incumbency; the trappings of office on the night of the state of the union will cloak any president with gravitas. But he also has the benefit, when set against Gingrich and Romney, of looking and sounding like the only adult standing.

"The greatest blow to confidence in our economy last year didn't come from events beyond our control," he said, as though chiding naughty school children. "It came from a debate in Washington over whether the United States would pay its bills or not. Who benefited from that fiasco?"

As a state of the union speech, it was fine. The fact that it was brilliantly delivered is both expected – and therefore discounted. Indeed, in the absence of substantive economic improvements for substantial numbers of people, his oratory can begin to work against him. His opponents can paint him as the hope-peddler who talks a good game, but tends to come up short.

Policy-wise, most of what he said regarding energy, foreign policy, the military and even the economy could have been said by a moderate Republican, if such a breed was not almost extinct within the political class. Yet, for all the forced conviviality in the chamber, the most memorable parts of the speech were shaped not by shenanigans in Washington, but by the protests in the streets that have shifted the focus of the nation from debt and government-bashing to the enduring inequalities and inequities in American society.

It was the Occupy movement's ability to connect in a way that the president had not that gave Obama the political space to shift the focus of the nation's ire from the poor to the rich: to talk about responsibility and handouts – not with regard to the poor, but to the rich in general, and the financial industry in particular. At one stage, the president even appealed to the 98% of the country that earns less than $250,000. "Let's never forget," he said:

"Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same. It's time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: no bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody."

Whether, come November, he can persuade people, despite their own experience, not just that things could have been worse without him, but that they can only get better with him, remains to be seen.

For there is no work and the rules are rigged. And speeches alone could never change that.

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