State of the Union: Return to American Optimism

This State of the Union was one of President Obama’s best in terms of confidence in himself and his achievements, his country and its future. Last year’s SOTU address tried to be optimistic but couldn’t quite get there. The president had to acknowledge the still difficult uphill climb:

Let’s face it…Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on…. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all. Our job is to reverse these trends.

The most compelling part of yesterday’s speech was the can-do attitude that characterizes the country’s past and the people’s ability to overcome the economic afflictions unleashed by the economic crisis and recession that began in 2007. Rather than focus on military muscle-flexing as the substance of global power, he focused on nurturing U.S. power from the inside out: developing human resources through better and more education, job training—and universal daycare to enable people to study and work—technology so that individuals and communities become more resourceful and empowered. The message was clear: Invest in people; invent through better knowledge and training; innovate through new ideas; inspire ourselves and the world through productivity and principled values.

After years of feeling downtrodden and wary of America’s decline, this was an uplifting message. “Empowerment” is a cliché, but last night, it had substance and sobriety, the fact that great nations don’t just happen but emerge from careful step-by-step generation and re-generation of people’s hopes and abilities.

There was little on foreign policy that was new or different from what we already know. His focused criticism of Russia, his taking full responsibility and credit for the bold move to reverse the 50-year policy of shunning Cuba, and his clear opposition to tightening sanctions on Iran while diplomatic talks on its nuclear program are being played out was a clear message that his administration won’t be bullied by Russia or by a Republican-dominated Congress.

This was a speech that assumed and emphasized that the United States is THE preeminent global leader and will continue to be so (if his vision and proposals for human investment in education, job training, technology, invention and innovation, etc. ) are supported. There was no hint of a U.S. decline, insecurity, or repositioning to move back on top. The invisible and unmentioned audience was China and countries that are nervous about America’s future relative to China’s.

Regarding the Koreas, it was diplomatic of Mr. Obama not to mention North Korea directly when he talked about the dangers of cyber hacking to Americans. Interestingly, he did not focus on the threats to American companies so much as the dangers to American “families.” This is an admission that cyberhacking is both a public and personal assault, if not affront. He showed restraint and understanding that there is no need to “beat up North Korea” publicly after so much media attention and the fait accompli of tightening sanctions. For he knows what his administration is capable of doing: The U.S. government took action promptly, knows more about North Korean cyber capacity than many believed, and is ever-watchful of North Korea as a cyber threat. The truth is that the president couldn’t have singled out North Korea without mentioning a longer list of serious hacking nations. At the top of that list are China and Russia, and Iran also ranks high. This is an example of Mr. Obama’s emphasis on discerning when to rely on diplomacy rather than confrontation, which he emphasized in his address.