Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Political leadership and the State of the Union

By Harry Kreisler

 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.