People often – and rightly, because democracy – criticize the POTUS (President of the United States), but I think most would agree it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world. Assessing the performance of the nation under his charge over a year of extremely difficult foreign and domestic issues is certainly a difficult task. Barack Obama, the current 44th President of the United States, did not disappoint when he gave the State of the Union address last week on Tuesday (US time).
Obama took a slightly untraditional approach this time around in that he did not simply deliver a list of legislative changes that he expects Congress to pass in the coming year. Instead, he took recourse to a lot more rhetoric, speaking directly to the American people. In the current climate of uncertainty and decisiveness, this was a wise move.
After speaking on the success that the US has had historically in the face of supreme adversity and change, Obama outlined four questions that he expected Congress and the next President would have to rise to answer:
‘First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?
Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us – especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?
Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?’
Laying out his successes in the way of economic reform, Obama painted a rosy picture. Obama has a right to be proud of his economic credentials – the US economy is back on track for a rebound to strong growth, and remains by far the world’s largest and most diverse. However, he was creative with the statistics he used. For instance, when claiming that 900,000 manufacturing jobs had been created during the last six years, he omitted the fact that number was still over 200,000 lower than the amount of manufacturing jobs that existed when he began his Presidency.
Realistically speaking with manufacturing going the way it is, especially in the American automotive industry, it’s surprising that he managed to avert as many job losses as he did. Additionally, his claim to have “halved” unemployment is taken from a high point of 10% during 2009, not the lower figure of 7.8% when he took office. Nevertheless, with unemployment at 5% now, he can certainly claim to have improved the situation for many American workers.
In terms of his second point, Obama seemed to eerily echo Turnbull’s calls for “innovation”, with similar policies including greater emphasis on computer-based sciences and coding to be taught in public schools. This is a critical issue for the 21st century. The US is still the most technologically advanced nation in the world, though its lead is steadily being ebbed away, and once the Chinese economy overtakes it, that gap will wither at a faster rate. Without action and impetus, the USA risks falling behind in the next several decades. While Obama’s call to action is all well and good, concrete policy and direction is needed to effect the necessary changes.
Obama however made his biggest waves in the discussion of foreign policy. Obama’s presidency has been wracked by disaster after disaster in terms of world events. His abortive withdrawal from Iraq, the overrunning of the US Embassy in Benghazi, the unsuccessful “pivot” toward Asia and China’s unchecked advance, the continually deteriorating situation in the Middle East, the NSA leaks, the abandonment of Crimea… the list goes on. While these have no doubt been constant problems plaguing the Presidency, the USA’s failure to deal with them appropriately is not entirely the fault of Obama. When Bush stumbled out of the White House in 2007, he left a series of nearly unprecedented, bull-headed failures in his wake. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had predictably become protracted quagmires, and it was up to Obama to clean them up – all the while dealing with an increasingly assertive China and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Additionally, the near-spontaneous Arab Spring and the resultant catastrophic collapse of Middle Eastern stability gave the Obama administration little recourse.
For what it’s worth, Obama spoke decisively against involving the US in this kind of conflict in the future, saying, ‘It’s the lesson of Vietnam. It’s the lesson of Iraq and we should have learnt it by now.’ He went on though to issue a stern warning about the strength of American resolve against ISIS: ‘If you doubt America’s commitment – or mine – to see that justice is done, just ask Osama Bin Laden.’
Obama effortlessly deconstructed the vapid comments of demagogical Republican nominees. Never naming his potential successors specifically, he lambasted Sen. Cruz’s Douglas MacArthur-esque suggestion to “carpet-bomb” the Middle East and rejected Trump’s politics of fear surrounding Muslim and Mexican immigration, saying ‘When politicians insult Muslims… that doesn’t make us safer.’
Critically, Obama spoke briefly about the nuclear deal struck with Iran in July last year. Awkwardly, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had ten US sailors captive during his address – he did not make reference to this. Ultimately, despite strong Israeli and Republican condemnations, the proof is in the results of the agreement. Iran now has no breakout nuclear capability, is re-engaging with the world economy and will likely soon be a close US ally in the region. Obama went to lengths to emphasis his strong diplomatic abilities. Instead of his predecessor, who claimed an “Axis of Evil” that included Iran and simply invaded nations that he felt suspicious about, Obama was much more measured.
When discussing the preponderance of the American military, Obama was full of enough patriotic vigor that would (or should) please even the most flag-wearing, gun-toting Dixie. Of America he claimed, ‘Nobody attacks us directly or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.’ The President literally laughed away the idea that the American military might be eclipsed or lose its hegemony in the world – particularly in Asia. ‘Seriously, watch it’, he laughed. Answering the question of China’s role in the region, he stated that ‘They [China] do not make the rules – we do.’ These are the words of a man who is absolutely certain of American dominance, and refuses to characterize American power in any other way.
Obama did risk simplifying the current conflagration in the Middle East by referring to it as the playing out of “ancient hatreds.” It is well known to anybody who studies the Middle East that the myriad conflicts in the region are far more complex than those of Sunni/Shia divide and the problems of Sykes-Picot. With broad statements like this, Obama adds fuel to the fire of those who call him a foreign policy novice.
Finally, Obama turned his focus to the future. He spoke of the steps that the US has taken to embrace renewable energy, and that the next presidency should be about moving away from “dirty coal.” In this effort, Obama claimed that the government has ensured that citizens can generate their own electricity from solar power. He also added that the US has cut its oil imports by 60%, and “cut carbon pollution more than any other country on earth.” While this is good, he also stated, ‘Gas under $2 ain’t bad either.’ This latter statement is antithetical to the clean energy future that he urged minutes earlier. However, in the meantime, cheap gas is a chief concern of the average American, and claiming ownership of that is a sure popularity boost.
Obama’s 2016 State of the Union Address presented an optimistic future for the nation; painting his presidency as the deft, calm handling of a ship during a terrible storm. The message was loud and clear: I’ve done the hard work, America is still on top, now it’s up to my successor to take the wheel. The USA will not see a presidency as dynamic as that of Obama for a long time. His adroit handling of delicate foreign policy issues, unending drive for domestic reform despite a hostile Congress, and his down-to-earth connectivity with the average American made him a once-in-a-generation president, and a breath of fresh air from the big business, military-industrial complex slaves of the previous Republican administration. Full of rhetoric, yes, bending the truth slightly, yes, omitting inconvenient truths, yes, but this address was less a story of his own presidency, and more a story of America, and how to, uh, ‘make it great again.’
The great barometer by which to judge Obama’s tenure as President will be the result of the next election. If Obama was successful in assuaging the American public’s fears of economic decline, Chinese ascendency, US Middle East policy and security, then chances are we’ll see a Democrat President. If however he was unsuccessful, we may well see a Trump White House. Time will tell, but I believe that the American voting population is wilier than we often give it credit. Yes, they’re the same chumps that gave Bush eight years, but they also elected Obama. The last year of a presidency is always the least productive, but it would be wrong to expect Obama to slow down. He still has many objectives to achieve, and if the conviction that he so clearly spoke with during his address is anything to go by, he will not cease for a moment until his tenure in office is over.
Words by Brad Griffin
For a full video and transcript of the State of the Union address, click here