Colombo Telegraph

Obama’s ‘State Of The Union’ Address: What Could It Mean To You And Me?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Barack Obama broke the tradition this time. Previously, the text of the ‘State of the Union’ address was sent to the press, but with an embargo. This time there was no embargo and the people could read the ‘address’ before, or while they listened to it. The purpose was to attract more attention and solicit public reactions. Obama was confident of his oratory or rhetoric. He has two more years to go and with a hostile Senate. He needs public support perhaps to counter the odds.

It was entertaining to listen. It was interesting to read. He started declaring “We are fifteen years into this new century.” This is true of any country or each and every human being in this planet. Then came the gloom. “Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores,” he said. Perhaps these two phrases encapsulate the ‘prospects and problems’ or more accurately, ‘problems and prospects’ that the world is faced with.

American Creed

But he wanted to reassure the public. With a pause and a smile then he said, “But tonight, we turn the page.” There was applause and many in the audience arose from their seats. This ritual was performed at frequent intervals to Obama’s bold and punctuated statements, as if he was a Majesty.

Perhaps he had a reason to be jubilant. “Our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999,” he said. That was a stable year before the recession. Yes, America has come out of the recession. He also referred to America’s military involvement overseas, Iraq and Afghanistan, and tried his best to make an optimistic note. But his face was not that convincing. Many Americans are critical of the involvements.

I have read many of the ‘State of the Union’ statements since George Washington’s time. What is particularly characteristic of all of them is the emphasis on or tone of American patriotism. Without that kind of a binding glue perhaps America could not have prospered or achieved as it has. But it is not a patriotism in a bad or a divisive manner. It is not a patriotism to call some others ‘traitors.’ It is a patriotism to unite each and every one in society. I can’t offhand remember who said ‘America is not a race, but a creed.’ Author was a President, saying it in a State of the Union address. What it meant was a system of values and a system of beliefs. As he explained, the American creed is based on democracy and human rights; and belief in the people.

One may criticise the American creed. Its democracy is political, not economic. Its human rights still neglect the human rights of the poor and the needy. But it is a social creed, far better than having an ethnic or religious ideology as the base of a society.

There were so many superlatives in Obama’s speech. It was a political statement than an objective analysis. ‘Growing economy,’ ‘shrinking deficits,’ ‘bustling industry,’ and ‘booming energy production’ were some of those pleasing phrases. However, the American public cannot easily be hoodwinked. The media reviews, public responses and blog comments were extremely critical.

Obama Vision

Of course, Obama was different to many of his predecessors. He was almost a social democrat at least in rhetoric. He asked the question “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” Why ask, he was the President responsible. Undoubtedly the economy is beyond the control of the government or the state. A recent Oxfam research revealed that 1 percent of the world population would be controlling more than 50 percent of the world’s wealth by 2016. The American economy is largely responsible for the inhuman distortions in the world economy. The talk about human rights, as a result, recedes only into theory in many respects.

Obama had his own problems in mind when he delivered the speech. It was a speech more than a formal union address. He has to get a budget approved by both chambers of the Congress in few weeks’ time. It is not going to be easy. He was preparing the background for a possible bargaining and a compromise. Therefore, he had to inflate the successes and convince the Senators.

He told stories. He told about the story of Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis. He is good in telling tales. It was also a story about the housing and construction market. They have apparently bounced back. He said “America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.” Of course it was American English. He addressed ‘America,’ as if a person or a people. He wanted to reassure the people. After all, America is a ‘we the people country.’ That is the positive side of America, whatever your criticisms of the other sides of the country or society.

He talked about the need for regulation for the economy. Otherwise, we all know an economy goes mad. That is what happened in the recession. The economy and the businesses going mad. He was absolutely right on that. He said, “We believed that sensible regulations could prevent another crisis, shield families from ruin, and encourage fair competition.” I am sure, the Democrats will agree with him. But I doubt whether the Republicans would follow suit. They want to reverse the cycle.

Middle Class Economics!

He also raised his stick. He said he cannot reverse his welfare interventions that he has rightly initiated during his tenure. “And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto,” he quipped. After all we are talking about a Presidential System and an Executive President.

He also had an economic theory. Quite novel or rhetorically impressive, I must say. He called it ‘middle class economics.’ He reminded Franklin D. Roosevelt during the great depression, and the New Deal. He said “Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change.”

Perhaps this is a good inspiration for the 100 Days Program of President Maithripala Sirisena. I am not referring to the constitutional reforms, but to the socio-economic package. 100 Days Program promises, salary increases for the working men and women, both in the government sector and hopefully in the private sector. But what should be kept in mind in Sri Lanka is that there is a large section of faming families. They are the backbone of the country. They also should benefit. More importantly, there should be a philosophy attached to it.

There also should be a bargain. That is there in Obama economics. The 100 Days Program should motivate people to work harder, achieve better and contribute to their families and the country. The motivational aspects of Obama’s speech is quite exemplary in this sense, Sri Lanka or any other country could emulate.

Obama’s address also touched on so many weaknesses or infirmities in the American working conditions. Working people in Sri Lanka are much better off in this sense. Still there is no paid sick or maternity leave system in America! Women are not paid the same wages as men for the same work! He touched on positive aspects as well. Motivation for higher education and competitiveness were two of those. He also touched on Science and Technology. Environment protection also got some space. He even boasted, as all politicians do. He said “Since 2010, America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined.” There was applause as usual.

World Affairs?

His State of the Union was not only about America. It was about the world. That was common to all contemporary past Presidents. America is the most powerful nation, at least for the time being. He said, “My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America.” He was in fact appeared little bit self-critical thereafter. “In doing so, the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how.” The typical American mind set apparently is not changed even in his case. “America leads in the world,” that is what he said. It is not very democratic, isn’t it?

Who has elected America to lead the world, one may ask. What about the UN? There has always been a mix up between the US and the UN.

Otherwise, some of the things that he said were sensible. Look at the following.

When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.    

‘Leaders’ or countries do make ‘mistakes.’ But for what purpose/s? If mere self-interest is involved, and if the interest is tainted by money (capital) or oil, then that would not serve the world. Why not America takes off its ‘leadership hat’ and cooperate with other nations more on an equitable basis? It may appear a pipedream.

Of course he said “I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership.” At least that was better than previous belligerent statements of other Presidents, for example, Bushes. What he talked about was diplomacy but strong ones. One thing I have observed about Americans is that they are by and large very candid, whether they are academics, ordinary folks or politicians. Then it is easy to deal with. There is no much hanky-panky.

He correctly referred to the growing menace of terrorism in the name of Islam, terrorising the world from schools in Pakistan and to the streets in Paris. He didn’t particularly mention Sydney, Australia, where I live now and also feel the tension. We of course cannot expect him to admit their culpability in the whole mess. But what might be more disagreeable are statements like “we reserve the right to act unilaterally.” Then he went on rambling about the “power of American strength and diplomacy.” Perhaps he was playing for the local audience or the gallery, particularly in the presence of the Republicans.

Right and Wrong

What is wrong with America? One may ask at this stage. Well, it is Imperialist. That is the old answer. It is big, strong and mighty with economic and defence interests. That is political realism. There may be some who even consider America to be a saviour or an example. That is a kind of idealism. All may have some elements of truth. It is a combination of all the hotchpotch.

Obama didn’t spare time to give some sidekicks to Russia and China. That is understandable except it is not prudent to put into practice if Obama or America genuinely look for a ‘safer and prosperous world.’ ‘Prosperous’ is not the correct word anyway. Haven’t they prospered enough, even at the expense of the poor and the weak? ‘Sustainable’ might be the better word, considering the environmental challenges that even he touched on briefly. ‘Equity’ is also a necessary ingredient for a safer world.

If there was anything particularly pleasing in his State of the Union address about the world or regional affairs, then to me that was about Cuba. He said “In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.” That was a good way of saying it. He elaborated further.

“Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”

The reference to our region was brief. “In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules,” hinting again at China. There was nothing particularly on South Asia, where India is a promising but an independent partner. Obama is scheduled to visit India soon. No one can expect him to refer to tiny Sri Lanka although some of us used to or still think too big.

However, it appears there is genuine space for Sri Lanka in dealing with America, not through huge sums of dollars paid to PR companies, but through our own professional diplomacy. After all Sri Lanka is strategically located and important both to China and America. What Obama said about America, perhaps is more suitable for Sri Lanka on diplomacy. Quoting Pope Francis, he said, “Diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.”

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