State of the Union

The State of the Union – American Presidents’ speeches to the nation before a joint Congress –is always a high point on the American political calendar, and, so, I guess, a time as good as any to start this new blog ‘’From America.’’
On Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama gave his third State of the Union speech since he was elected President in November 2008, but his first in the new political era after his and the Democratic Party’s resounding defeat at the polls in November 2010.
I have seen many such speeches, Reagan, first Bush, Clinton, second Bush, and it is always a festive affair, with lots of pomp and circumstance, with all the television channels broadcasting live and Congress full of cheering and clapping members. Standing ovations from both sides of the political aisle are usually the norm, constantly interrupting the speech. The members from the President’s party are usually especially loud, almost like at a football game with fans rooting for the home team.
However, Tuesday’s speech was unusually somber, reflecting the fact that these are serious times in America. Maybe it also was in response to the recent tragic events in Tucson, Arizona, where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded by a shot through the head. An empty seat in the chamber symbolized her absence, and as a show of unity, many members of both parties decided to sit next to a colleague from the other party rather than, as usually done, form two strictly divided political blocs in the chamber.
As President Obama said, “there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passion and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater -– something more consequential than party or political preference. We are part of the American family… Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”
Here, in the aftermath of the tragedy in Tucson, it would have seemed natural to take up the issue of stricter gun control, which President Obama is known for favoring. On a day when the Washington Post carried a full page ad with the names of nearly six hundred mayors against illegal guns from all over America — led by New York’s Michael Bloomberg — calling for a national response to a problem that has resulted in in 34 Americans murdered with guns every day since 1968, it would have seemed the natural thing to do. But not a word about gun control was heard from the President.
It was almost as if he did not want anything as contentious as this issue is in America to cloud his central message of working together and cooperating, saying “We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than any party, and bigger than politics.”
It was a seemingly more confident President, more “Presidential” perhaps. He spoke, eloquently, as we have become accustomed to, but he didn’t bring the roof down. Observers called it a centrist speech, confirming the “new” bipartisan emphasis of the Obama Administration, as seen during the lame-duck session of Congress and its remarkable string of victories for the White House. There was little for his fellow democrats to chew on, to get truly excited about in his almost exactly one hour address to the nation.
He sounded upbeat about the economy. It is growing again, he announced, corporate profits are up, and we are poised for progress. But with the unemployment rate stubbornly at over 9 per cent, few seemed to find solace in that message.
“The future is ours to win,” he said, “but to get there we can’t just stand still. Sustaining the American dream has never been about standing pat. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-education and out-build the rest of the world.”
Innovation, research and technology, education, renewable energy, and the necessity to rebuild America and its infrastructure were central themes for Obama’s future America in this, “our Sputnik moment” of renewed sense of national purpose. Remember, he said, we have the capacity to deal with our problems –”we do big things.”
He recognized the enormous, and growing, debt of the American economy and he proposed a five-year freeze on annual domestic spending, but not much else, except general words about closing tax loopholes, simplify the tax code and reforming the corporate tax, and streamlining the government. He said he would accept cuts, but only those that we can honestly afford to do without and only if “we are not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.” And no long-term solution is really possible, he said, without cutting military spending and mandatory spending on Medicare and Social Security.
For the Washington Post, in its editorial, the speech was a “lost opportunity to prepare Americans for fiscal austerity.” It said that “the reality is that the country is heading for a catastrophe” unless some politically unpopular things are done. For the New York Times, in its editorial, The President’s speech “offered a welcome contrast to the posturing that passes for business in the new Republican-controlled House….Mr. Obama was genuinely inspiring with a vision for the country to move forward with confidence and sense of responsibility.”
But the Republicans were no more concrete and no more detailed in their response afterwards. They blamed President Obama for America’s present economic problems without offering any concrete solutions as to how and what to cut after, what they called, “the unprecedented explosion of government spending and debt.”
As Washington Post’s economic columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote, they showed no understanding or support for the President’s “invest and grow” message, instead offering “cut and grow” as their solution to the economic and unemployment problems.
“Republicans,” Pearlstein continued, “have no public investment strategy, just as they have no health-care strategy and no agreed-upon blueprint for reducing federal spending. What they have are poll-tested talking points, economic delusions and an overwhelming partisan instinct to say `no` to anything Barack Obama proposes. In their response to the president’s State of the Union message, they remind us once again that they are not serious about economic policy and not ready to govern.”
Domestic issues — jobs and the economy – dominated the State of the Union. Only about seven minutes were devoted to foreign policy. The president said the war in Iraq is coming to an end; in July, we will begin to bring our troops home from Afghanistan; and the United States stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people. He stressed the building of new partnerships such as with India, the strengthening of Asian alliances, and the resetting of the relationship with Russia, but he said nothing about China and little about Europe except the revitalization of NATO and increased cooperation on counterterrorism and missile defense.
The focus on domestic issues was expected in view of the serious economic problems facing America right now. For without progress on this front, mainly by creating many more jobs and, thus, lowering the number of unemployed Americans, it will be difficult for President Obama to get re-elected in November 2012. That’s what the next two years in American politics will be all about.

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