WASHINGTON, Jan. 25 — It would be easy to view U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night as a domestic pitch — an agenda-setting political address geared primarily to accelerate the resurrection of his popularity among the centrist “independent” voters whose support he will need if he is to win reelection in 2012.
Certainly, there was a measure of this kind of calculus and foreign policy, at least as understood since the end of the Cold War, barely got a mention. Instead, there was the soaring rhetorical call for civility in the wake of the murderous rampage in Tucson earlier this month; Obama hailed new tax breaks for small businesses; singled out entrepreneurs in the audience whose innovation has put people back to work; demanded tax reforms; and read a relentless list of initiatives and proposals aimed at creating jobs, jobs, jobs.
Yet, insofar as American power rests on the vitality of the world’s largest economy, foreign policy loomed large in almost every paragraph of his speech. At a time when American power is undeniably in relative decline and national debt is projected to reach 90 percent of GDP by 2020, the idea that domestic policy is distinct from foreign policy simply isn’t realistic.
“At stake right now is not who wins the next election — after all, we just had an election,” Obama said. “At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else.”
Again and again, whether addressing cuts to the federal spending, U.S. trade policy or clean energy initiatives, he returned to a common theme: America is falling behind.
“Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer.”
Obama’s speech, while aimed at domestic constituencies, in fact amounted to a clarion call for Americans to get serious about the global competition they have done little more than moan about until now. The president called it a “Sputnik moment.”
“Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren't even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations,” he said. He didn’t need to say “India” and “China” this time.
There were moments when old-style foreign policy issues intervened. The most striking such mention involved Tunisia’s recent tumult, which drove a long-serving dictator into exile. On a day when Egyptians took to the streets to protest their own ossified strongman, Obama had the guts to say: “We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” Egypt’s governing elite can hardly be happy about that line.
There were also claims of success against the Taliban in Afghanistan, disruption of Al Qaeda, the successful START treaty signed with Russia, and his assertion that “the Iraq War is coming to an end” — a line which brought bipartisan applause. Yet, by and large, Obama kept his focus on the grand theme: ensuring future competitiveness for the American economy.
“The rules have changed,” the president said. To anyone paying attention to the world outside America’s borders, this is hardly a radical statement. But it isn’t one Americans have warmed to or even accepted just yet. It is always easier to resent such changes and seek scapegoats. Obama said he believes in “ the nation of Edison and theWright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It's how we make a living.”