President Obama’s Final State of the Union Address

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We have to change the system to reflect our better selves…changes in our political processes-in not just who gets elected, but how they get elected-that will only happen when the American people demand it

President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on January 12, 2016 wasn’t a catalogue of achievements of his Presidency. Instead, it was a statesman like articulation of America’s core values & unique characteristics, national priorities for today & tomorrow, inescapable challenges thrown up by a fast changing world, thoughts for addressing the domestic & foreign challenges, stress on maintaining peace, harmony, diversity & plurality of society & caring for those who have been left behind, remaining ahead in innovation, research & skill up gradation, reminding fellow Americans and the world at large that the US was still the most powerful nation on earth militarily & economically that will protect its nationals & allies wherever needed & hunt down and destroy the ISIL but will not act as a global policeman. He also emphasised the need of bipartisan national priorities and bringing about fundamental changes in the political system. It reflected America’s self confidence, institutional strength, determination and a broad vision for future that was tempered by prevailing ground realities at home and abroad. With his enviable oratorical excellence, Obama highlighted several issues and factors that are as relevant to India and other democracies as they are for the US.

He flagged four basic questions that the new US administration will have to address: how to give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in the new economy; how to make technology work for people and not against them; how to keep America safe and lead the world without becoming it’s policeman & how to make politics reflect what’s best in people and not their worst. Except the idea of leading the world, all other issues stare in the face of the governments of many countries including India.

Reiterating that ‘America is about giving everybody willing to work a chance, a hand up’, he didn’t shy away from admitting that immigration system, gun violence, wage structure, paid leaves, social security & medicare, affordable education, more jobs and concentration of wealth & income at the very top in companies were issues demanding solution. It sounds so familiar and resonates when he stresses that thriving private sector is the lifeblood of America’s economy, and outdated regulations and red tape needed to be done away with and in new economy workers and start-ups and small businesses need more voice, not less; rules should work and the spirit of innovation is to be reignited. Using his own phrases & idioms, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also been putting emphasis on these issues through his concepts of minimum govt maximum governance, Start-up Konnect, Digital India, Skill India and improving the Ease of Doing Business. Obama said, “We have protected an open Internet and taken bold new steps to get more students and low income Americans on line. We have launched next generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day”. Launching the start-up campaign at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi on January 16 in the presence of over 1000 young entrepreneurs including several internationally known IT Icons, setting up a Mega Start-up Fund of INR 10,000 crore and offering 3 years tax holidays, PM Narendra Modi also promised all clearances in a single day.

Encouraging the US to find cure for cancer and end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, Obama underlined that the ‘spirit of discovery’ was in America’s DNA. He pointed out that today the US was less threatened by evil empires and more by failing states.

While conceding that ISIL posed a grave threat, he refused to call them an existential threat to the US or capable of starting the WW III. He termed them as killers and fanatics ‘who have to be rooted out, hunted down and destroyed’. He referred to the likelihood of instability for decades in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, part of Central America, Africa and Asia but cautioned, “we can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crises, even if it is done with the best of intentions, that’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it’s the lesson of Iraq-and we should have learnt it by now.” This is the most candid admission of the failure of American intervention in various countries by any sitting US president ever. Taking credit for the normalisation of relations with Cuba after 64 years and striking a nuclear deal with Iran and closing down prisons at Guantanamo, he stressed, “on global concerns, we will mobilise the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.” He mentioned, “American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world-except when we kill terrorists-or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unravelling. Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right.” Clearly, he was enunciating the fundamentals of future US foreign policy that should reassure her friends and allies alike.

Dispelling the predictions of doom & gloom and rejecting all talks of ‘Post-America world’, Obama said, “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” While pointing out that, “the US was the most powerful nation on earth,” he admitted that economy was facing profound changes with the sweep of new technologies. Stressing the significance of TPP that will open markets, protect workers and environment and advance American leadership in Asia, he claimed, “with TPP, China doesn’t set the rule in that region; we do.” While China’s GDP (on PPP) basis might have overtaken the US GDP, recent slowdown in China’s economy and the currency crises faced by her, has raised serious questions about the health of its economy.

What is more relevant for a country like India is the diagnosis of social & political issues. “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This is not a matter of political correctness. ..That is a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity, and our openness, and the way we respect every faith.” For a multi-racial, multi-religious and multiethnic society like India also, this is the right way.

His comments about politics ring the bell. “If we want a better politics, it is not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a president. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves…changes in our political processes-in not just who gets elected, but how they get elected-that will only happen when the American people demand it. It depends on you. That’s what is meant by a govt of, by and for the people.” So, it’s the responsibility of the people to elect right people to represent them. In India too, advocates of political reforms have talked about it but got nowhere.

Every political party in India claims to be working tirelessly for the aam admi only their results aren’t too visible. Obama also touched this issue, “To speak out, to stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody somewhere stood up for us.”

The dreams for common citizens seem similar. “The future we want-all of us want-opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids-all that is within our reach. But it will happen if we work together; it will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will happen if we fix our politics.” Fixing our politics and raising the living standards of our citizens have been popular slogans in India.

In the context of the ongoing debate in India about tolerance & intolerance, the following paras in Obama’s speech might contain some pointers.

“...democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And above all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favour of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.”

Even his detractors will concede that for normalising relations with Cuba after six decades & achieving a thaw with Iran and facilitating COP 21 Paris agreement with 190 countries on board, Barack Obama richly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize that he got in 2009.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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