In the runup to U.S. President Barack Obama’s third State of the Union address, the White House emphasized how different the speech would be. Mr. Obama would eschew the usual catalog of initiatives that was dismissed as “small ball” by his predecessor, and focus instead on a vision for the nation. The result was an ambitious speech that implored his nation to embrace the change that would “win the future.” Compelling though that vision may be, realizing it will require a bipartisan commitment that may remain beyond the administration’s grasp.
Typically, the State of the Union speech is a congratulatory piece that lauds the achievements of the last 12 months while rallying the troops — legislators from the president’s own party and his supporters — for more of the same. In the aftermath of the “shellacking” (Mr. Obama’s own word) the Democrats received in the November mid-term elections, that course was unlikely. Even though Mr. Obama could claim plenty of wins in the last congressional session, the president had to shift the terms of political engagement, to rise above the partisan fray and reframe the national debate.
The first task was (ironically) easier in the aftermath of the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. As a gesture of reconciliation, Democrats and Republicans mingled in the audience rather than sitting on opposing sides of the aisle as they usually do. In his speech, Mr. Obama highlighted Republican accomplishments and ideas, showing his willingness to reach out.
But parse the message and there is a remarkable consistency in what Mr. Obama said with what he has been saying since he announced his intention to run for president. Indeed, halfway through his first term as president, it sounded like candidate Obama was making that speech. As he did during the campaign, he focused on restoring American competitiveness by addressing long-term challenges that threaten to undermine his country’s future. Mr. Obama spoke not about the next two years, but about the next decade and the next generation. In this speech, Mr. Obama’s eyes were on the horizon, not the next election.
His vision rests on five pillars: innovation, education, infrastructure, deficit reduction and a more efficient federal bureaucracy. Calling this “a Sputnik moment,” Mr. Obama promised to increase U.S. spending on research and development to the levels of the Space Race. He asked Congress to eliminate tax subsidies for oil companies and to invest instead in alternative energies, with the goal of generating 80 percent of U.S. electricity from clean sources by 2035. As part of a revamp of the U.S. education system, Mr. Obama said he would prepare 100,000 new teachers in science, technology, math and engineering.
Acknowledging the decrepit state of U.S. infrastructure, he proposed construction of high-speed rail — so that 85 percent of Americans would have access within 25 years — along with roads and airports. He endorsed a “national wireless initiative” that would extend wireless coverage to 98 percent of the country.
Balancing the books is essential to his country’s future and to get its house in order, Mr. Obama called for a five year freeze on domestic spending along with tax reform and rethinking of entitlement programs. As part of this effort, as well as a goal in its own right, he called for increasing government efficiency to ensure that the U.S. government serves its citizens well.
In contrast to his Republican opponents, Mr. Obama believes government has a purpose and should be a means to ends. In this speech, however, he shifted the debate away from the traditional division between advocates and opponents of big and small government. Instead, he framed the issue as one of national purpose and explained how government plays a critical role in ensuring that the U.S. is ready for a new era. “The world has changed,” he noted, singling out nations like China, India and South Korea as responding to this new environment and raising the bar for the U.S. When put in those terms, it is hard to oppose the president’s agenda.
Ultimately, however, realization of his vision depends on his country uniting behind that purpose. That requires more than mere bipartisanship — although that alone is a lot to ask for, given the record of the last two years. It also demands effort, and yes, sacrifices from all citizens. Belt tightening is not “for the other guy.” Balancing the budget, in particular, will require tax increases and the restructuring of America’s entitlement programs. Neither is popular, but both are essential.
Mr. Obama spent little time in his speech on defense and foreign policy, addressing those concerns only in the last few minutes of his speech. He spoke first of the continuing U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then turned to American efforts to provide leadership to deal with global challenges.
American leadership depends first on the country’s ability to meet the challenges of the times, to adapt and response to new environments and circumstances. As in his National Security Strategy, Mr. Obama knows that U.S. strength rests on power — not just “hard” military power, but economic and social — “soft” — power too. This is the key to Mr. Obama’s vision.
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