US election comment: Obama goes into battle

Matt Williams sizes up President Obama's State of the Union address

Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speechAP Photo, Evan Vucci

Presidential in tone, partisan in substance and populist in character, Barack Obama's State of the Union address sounded suspiciously like a campaign speech.

In the space of 65 minutes, the White House incumbent appeared to set out his stall for re-election, highlighting his successes whilst issuing a call for a gentle squeezing of America's super-rich.

It was by no means the most divisive speech he has ever given, but given the politically charged atmosphere in Washington these days it was seized upon by both sides of the divide.

"Class warfare" screamed Fox News, with conservative commentator Sean Hannity summoning up all the indignation he could muster.

Over on the network's liberal counterweight MSNBC a different State of the Union address was apparently under discussion. This one was "bold" in its substance¸ almost "Clintonesque" - high praise from the left-leaning station.

Ahead of Tuesday night's speech, those around the president had suggested that Mr Obama would not be pulling his punches as he sought to portray potential rivals as working for the interests of privilege.

With Republican presidential candidates already tearing chunks out of each other over the issue of personal wealth and taxes, Mr Obama almost need not have bothered.

But having dragged Warren Buffett's secretary to Washington as a prop - she famously pays a higher rate of tax than her billionaire boss - it was only right that Mr Obama dedicate part of his speech to her.

"Now you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense," Mr Obama said.

It was one of a number of occasions in which the president aligned himself with "most Americans", the inference being those against him represent the few.

This was Obama in campaign mode, on the offensive as he made a grab for middle America.

Populism gave way to patriotism at points, with Mr Obama mining the assassination of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden for support.

Inside the US Capitol, Democrats lapped it up, rising to their feet on cue. I counted 28 standing ovations although I'm sure there were more.

Meanwhile, the expressions on the face of Republicans ran from dignified disinterest to outright disdain.

Even the one joke contained in Mr Obama's address did little to lighten the mood, but then again it was pretty bad.

First lady Michelle Obama could only offer a half-smile, half-wince as her husband made a clumsy quip about dairy farmers crying over spilt milk.

Her pain was felt across the county. Twitter traffic peaked after the line, generating more than 14,000 tweets a minute, much of it mocking.

Despite being pushed by the White House and US media as the main theme, '#fairness' ranked just fourth in terms of topics picked up by Twitter during the State of the Union address.

It trailed behind '#jobs', '#energy' and '#education'.

But it was Obama's call for a mild soaking of the rich that remained the main talking point in the following day's editorials.

The New York Times credited the president for responding to a growing awareness of "deep inequalities in the economy and of the government's responsibility to act".

Opinion writers at Rupert Murdoch's New York Post were less impressed. Dubbing it Obama's "State of My Campaign" they chided the president for attempting to "divide the country".

With the election battle lines seemingly drawn, Mr Obama retreated to the White House after the State of the Union address. Meanwhile, would-be Republican challengers tut-tutted a divisive speech, before reforming their circular firing squad.