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Political leadership and the State of the Union

Harry Kreisler, visiting scholar, Institute of International Studies | January 26, 2011

 With his eye set on the next election, President Obama attempted to remind the country and the Congress that sacrifice for the common good is a pressing need. As preacher-in-chief, he tried to summon the best within our national character to meet the great tasks before us.  He embraced many liberal goals: more teachers, more roads, and more innovative technology.

However, despite the impressive rhetoric, in tackling the domestic and international agendas, Obama, two years into his term, has come up wanting. He seems to be always negotiating half-heartedly, indifferently, and fearfully. In short, when Obama comes to the bargaining table, he is so focused on facilitating compromise and restoring civility that he prematurely abandons the very principles he espouses. However, political life requires making the good fight with tenacious commitment to principle and pursuit of hard bargaining. Compromise comes only after political struggle. Unfortunately, Obama, for reasons of inexperience or character, is not willing, when push comes to shove,  to confront power and entrenched interests in either domestic or international politics. 

In last night’s State of the Union message, Obama’s call to sacrifice  was framed in terms of “competitiveness,” not in terms of restoring equality to the American landscape. We are asked to focus on our competition with the Chinese in order to sell them more products. Restoring the quality of life to our fellow citizens who are unemployed, who have lost their homes and retirement savings, is a second-order priority.

The President also gave in to the Republican framing of the issues: the emphasis was on deficit reduction, government efficiency, and reduction of public expenditures. With this agenda, America will be saved by the American spirit and character. This begs the question of who will pay for the country’s new investments for the future.

The speech made only passing reference to international affairs. Obama is not incapable of negotiating, as the new Salt Treaty and the Sudan settlement show. But in international affairs, Obama seems to be operating on the principle that ambiguity and civility will produce results. In resolving the Afghan/Pakistan conflict, he remains committed to a long war and to a short war. In the Middle East, he remains committed to freezing Israeli settlements and to deferring to Netanyahu’s political vision. In fighting the war on terror, he remains committed to Bush’s “War on Terrorism” but under a different banner and without a muscular commitment to civil liberties and international law.

Last night’s State of the Union suggests that President Obama can be both inspirational and insightful. Whether he can achieve concrete results in the fighting ring of politics, defined by the intransigence of Republican or foreign leaders, is another matter.

Comments to “Political leadership and the State of the Union

  1. When it comes to fiscal responsibility, Pres is long on rhetoric and short on action. After increasing the country’s debt by $3 trillion since being elected, a budget freeze does not bring deficits under control. Rather, it simply continues us on a path toward insolvency. Borrowing $1.5 trillion per year does not strike me as sacrificing. All the old excuses for our country’s sad state were rehashed and, unless you are happy with the status quo, no discernable strategy forward was proposed. Sadly, there was no mention of freedom, liberty, and personal responsibility; all we got were trite proposals to improve education and employment and fund boondoggles like high speed railroads and subsidized clean energy.

  2. We Never Learn! That’s what I have learned since taking one of my favorite courses, PoliSci 120a half a century ago.

    We just keep repeating our failures because our brain is not nearly evolved, or even understood enough to overcome destructive emotions that dominate our existence.

    This is in spite of the most extraordinary teamwork by FDR and Churchill who were in the right place at the right time to make the right things happen to save the world from ourselves during the Great Depression and WWII combined.

    The cardinal fact of life today, even if another FDR and/or Churchill came along, is that all of our political, social, economic, religious, educational and scientific institutions are in such a state of chaos that it appears we can no longer think our way out of our culture of self-destruction in time to make the right things happen again.

    And our rhetoric keeps proving that it is far easier to observe and criticize than to actually act in the best interests of Humanity, our rhetoric continuously overwhelms any resolution to save ourselves, making it increasingly impossible for us to survive even if Obama is another FDR.

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