Since the speech is called the State of the Union address, it was expected that U.S. President Barack Obama would devote most of his time to domestic concerns. In that regard, he did not disappoint. Two-thirds of his 75-minute talk focused on the economy, with much of the remainder challenging members of the Congress to rise above politics and work together to govern the nation. That plea is likely to fall on deaf ears: The partisan divide in Washington is the deepest it has ever been. If the founders of the American republic sought a divided and inefficient government, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Mr. Obama is perceived to be on the ropes after Republican Scott Brown won the special election for the Massachusetts Senate seat that had been a Democratic Party stronghold. The GOP win deprived the president’s party of its 60-seat supermajority in the Senate and heralded, for Republican strategists, the stirrings of the tidal wave of voter resentment that they think will bring their party back to power in Congress. That assessment is fanciful: The Democrats still have one more Senate seat than they did a year ago and Republicans enjoy no greater confidence from the voting public than their counterparts across the aisle.
But the perception of presidential weakness is real, and perceptions shape reality. Mr. Obama is thought to be on the defensive, with health care, his signature program, hanging in limbo as House and Senate Democrats struggle to reconcile two competing visions of reform. His efforts to revitalize the economy have languished, not because they have been ineffective — almost all economists credit the administration’s efforts with preventing the Great Recession from becoming another Great Depression — but because they are not seen as doing enough for the average American. Wall Street is again celebrating oversized bonuses, unemployment continues to grow, and the government deficit has reached truly astronomical proportions. Resistance to new efforts to deploy government resources to solve social problems is growing in tandem with that debt.
In his speech, Mr. Obama refused to concede to the conventional wisdom. In keeping with his campaign promise of hope, he demanded that politicians of both parties work together to solve the problems that the United States faces. Politicians could take the easy route, letting polls guide them and refusing to make hard choices. But Mr. Obama reminded the nation that “if people had made that decision 50 years ago, 100 years ago or 200 years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren.”
He prodded Democrats: “We still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.” Republicans were called out for party-line obstructionism that demands 60 (of 100) Senate votes “to do any business at all.” As Mr. Obama explained, “Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.”
Mr. Obama indicated that he remains focused on preparing the U.S. for the challenges of the future. He rallied Americans to his side by noting that other countries are modernizing their economies by investing in infrastructure, developing green technologies and educating children for 21st-century challenges.
The president has been faulted for paying too little attention to foreign affairs. That criticism is not without merit, but Americans wanted Mr. Obama to address their concerns at home. Foreign policy is a considerably lower priority for them. He acknowledged the need to stay vigilant against the threat of terrorism and noted his administration’s efforts to disrupt al-Qaida and kill its members.
Asian audiences are likely to hone in on his comments about foreign economic issues. There was support for free trade in his pledge to work for a successful conclusion to global trade talks and a slightly obscure reference to trade agreements negotiated with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. His assurance that all trade partners will have to play by the same rules smacks of a populist touch that does raise fears of protectionism. Mr. Obama’s pledge to double U.S. exports in five years is an admirable goal but one that seems beyond reach without a substantial devaluation of the U.S. dollar, a step that no one anticipates and few people desire.
His pledge to cut the threat posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons was warmly received in Japan, but progress in this effort demands a cooperative effort by all nations. Nations that shelter under the U.S. nuclear umbrella have a special role to play in shaping U.S. decision making.
If anyone expected Mr. Obama to chastise himself after a difficult year in office, this speech corrected that impression. The president was as combative ever, showing the fiery populism of the community organizer that has smoldered under an unflappable cool. Mr. Obama remains committed to remaking his nation. While he always knew that it would never be easy, after a year in the White House, that task must seem harder and more unreachable than ever.
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