Editorial: Coming out fighting

The bully pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt famously said, is one of the most powerful mechanisms available to a United States president. While his opponents are scattered from shore to shore and among a thousand competing groups, a president can turn the eyes and tune the ears of the nation on to him, and with powerful ideas powerfully expressed can command the republic.

President Barack Obama has been repeatedly reminded of that truth since his re-election. His supporters noticed his limited use during his first term of the persuasive force of his office - a reluctance to urge and argue in public that reached a nadir in the first debate against Mit Romney, where a reluctance to verbally engage dented his popularity and made the race a tight-run thing.

It was an animated Obama that put the campaign back on track and helped him win the first big test of his second term, the besting of his Republican opponents in the battle on the brink of the fiscal cliff.

The president went out into the country and argued the case for higher taxes on the rich and the protection of benefits and vividly pictured the Republicans as representatives only of the super rich. Citizens swung to the president's side and panicked his congressional opponents into a humiliating compromise.

The same fighting president was on show in his State of the Union speech on Wednesday. Obama was confident, visionary, detailed, branding himself and his Democratic Party as prepared to compromise for the common good but firm in protecting the interest of the women and men on Main Street. It was all projected by way of rhetoric, of course, but that is the tradition of oratory that persuades American audiences.

The policies that went with the rhetoric sensibly concentrated on the domestic agenda - sensible considering the nation's slow recovery from recession, high unemployment, ineffective immigration and gun controls, insupportable deficit and bitterly partisan politics.

On the last point, Obama urged constructive co-operation between Democrats and Republicans - good for his image and necessary to get measures through a House of Representatives controlled by his opponents. But he also laid down the gauntlet, insisting on measures that the Republicans find repugnant.

They, though, are divided on whether to compromise and accommodate the president or paint themselves even more damagingly into the conservative corner. They are also facing an election in two years that could lose them the House were they to be successfully branded divisive extremists.

The president and his party have more that an eye on the approaching election and are exploiting their opponents' troubles, but they know that the wind now in their sails might lessen. It is blowing strong because of the result of the presidential vote, the activism of the White House, the win on the fiscal cliff and people's horror with the shooting of the Sandy Hook innocents.

High hopes and public opinion might not be enough. The House is controlled by Republicans ensconced in seats flagrantly gerrymandered in their favour, and so are in a position to answer only to their conservative supporters. Their intransigence might be enough to stare down the man in the bully pulpit.