Reaction to Barack Obama’s Speech to Joint Session of Congress


I have just some very quick reactions to the Obama speech tonight as I’ve been on Al Jazeera English Network tonight talking for more than three hours on it and don’t want to really repeat the general patter of many other commentators and bloggers.
First, I thought that Obama’s comments on the economy foreshadow some tough judgment calls that are going to be embedded in his budgetary request that will come out two days from now. I wasn’t surprised by much in the speech — except perhaps that any speech delivered by Barack Obama ends up far better listened to than read. I was a bit astonished that he included a carbon cap and trade request in his remarks. I think that given the state of the American economy right now, this may be a negotiations move and something he will probably scale back to win some greater goods — but still impressive and surprising.
In walking Americans through the detail of the heart attack America’s financial sector is going through, he did a good thing. He helped explain why huge resources must go into creating a baseline of solvency for the system and a commitment to renewed lending and down the road growth.
But I think he failed to really frame what a new social contract between government, the nation’s firms, capital, workers, families and other stakeholders in our society might look like. He got pieces of it right — and did zero in on his three big priorities: energy, education and health care.
But as with so much of what Obama’s team has been doing, details were light, enthusiasm and hope were high, reaching out to all sides is part of the new shtick, and lots was left on the editing room floor.
I thought Obama didn’t speak as fully as he should have to the need to really rebuild America’s core infrastructure. He waved a wand over the fact that in the renewable energy sector, most of the related production jobs are overseas — and just said that those jobs need to be here without really talking about how the ecosystem for job creation in these emergent sectors will be incentivized inside the United States.
He mentioned China — not as a place where so many American manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to — but as a clearly emerging giant in the renewable energy field.
I found it odd that he didn’t reflect on his meeting this week with Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso — and didn’t mention his recent meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper or upcoming meeting next week with UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Most of these meetings have focused on what needs to be done to stabilize the global economic system.
And to a great degree Obama’s chances of achieving the kind of micro successes he outlined in his speech tonight depends on getting China, Japan and Germany to derive less of their growth from external export-led growth and more from domestic, internal consumption. That is key and Obama should have referenced this. It was part of the missing picture in the speech, left on the cutting room floor.
I wasn’t pleased by Obama’s talk about increasing the size of the military. More money. More men and women deployed to causes that we aren’t sure we should be fighting in this day and age. Obama is allowing incrementalism drive a lot of his thinking on the Pentagon’s role and place in America’s global engagement — and it is that overall picture that needs “a full policy review” before committing even more resources to what has been a very bad result on security deliverables.
And yes, foreign policy was a sideshow in this speech. Besides China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Israel were mentioned. Not much of the world pie.
And some in the Arab world are already really ticked off by the yet again use of Israel as the portal through which the Middle East is viewed. The term was “Israel and its neighbors.”
Many of my friends think that Palestine should have been mentioned. After all, Bush mentioned Palestine — a first for a US President.
I’m going to be more generous to Obama in my assessment. I think that the crafting of the term “Israel and its neighbors” gives Senator and Special Envoy George Mitchell the framing he needs to carve out a deal between Israel and its Arab neighbors — though I think that the deal really is between the United States and Israel’s Arab neighbors given the complete inability of Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace.
So, I can live with the framing this time — though I hope that Obama realizes that overuse of this portal into Middle East affairs will undermine his credibility with the 22 Arab League states that he is hoping to bring to a deal with Israel.
Also, what’s up with the phrasing “sustaining our efforts” in trying to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors. We need less sustaining and more of a results oriented strategy. Sustaining a process that has not and will not work is worth nothing and does damage. Engaging in a revitalized process that will achieve a deal that the Israelis, Palestinians and their mutual stakeholders will have to implement is what Obama needs to do.
All in all, this speech was better than I imagined it would be. It was serious in parts, had energy, talked to Americans, reached across the aisle — all good. It still lacked overall coherence, lacked vision on what America’s next social contract could and should look like. It went light on making the case that America needs a revitalized infrastructure to take it into the future – and where he addressed education and other forms of infrastructure, the gap between his rhetoric and the on the ground realities in the United States generate more disbelief than belief.
But again, not a bad show — just not the definitive, historical, brilliantly framed talk that simultaneously encourages American to wrestle with the grit of tough times while clearly projecting a horizon of opportunity that the nation can jump towards. That was what would have been great to hear — but this was not that speech.
I will check for typos in the morning. Good night.
— Steve Clemons


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