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State of the Union aimed at bridging partisan divide in the US

Barack Obama's speech focused mostly on domestic topics and bridging the ideological gap. While it was largely devoid of direct foreign policy issues, its message is vital for the US role in the world.

President Barack Obama during his State of Union adress in Washington

President Barack Obama tried to build a bipartisan consensus

Kalypso Nicolaïdis is Professor of International Relations and Director of the European Studies Center at Oxford University. She has been an advisor to the Greek and Dutch governments on European affairs. Nicolaïdis also served as a member of the EU Reflection Group on the future of Europe headed by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.

Deutsche Welle: Are you surprised that foreign policy and global security issues hardly played any role in President Obama's speech?

Kalypso Nicolaïdis: I am not surprised at all. The pressing agenda is national reconciliation and national growth. Foreign policy issues are both divisive and Obama also doesn't have a lot to show for on the international scene right now. And he has very big trouble spots that can only remind Americans of the challenges of the outside world that they are not able to control anymore. So it was not the terrain on which he was going to play after midterm elections where his party lost control of Congress and therefore the agenda for the speech was to reassert his leadership.

Does this absence of international topics signal that foreign policy at the moment is not a top priority for the Obama administration?

Of course as an outsider I really can't ascertain what the priorities of the Obama administration really are. And of course any European thinks foreign policy is such an important elite game and therefore wishes that if is not part of the speech that was designed to win the hearts and minds of Americans that doesn't mean that the administration itself is not busy on all sorts of international fronts.

And they would say, Hillary Clinton was sitting in the first row and we know how active and proactive she has been and we know how committed Obama is to his global strategy of engagement. So there would be many reasons to say 'no,' as usual foreign policy is there, it's just not in the forefront.

On the other hand, I have no doubt that now more than ever this American administration understands that the basis for a successful foreign policy is success at home: You can't have a foreign policy with a debt that continues to spiral. You can't have a successful foreign policy with constant bickering - used as a British understatement - between both parties and with a country that is basically not working together. So that's why indeed when he started his speech with the very rhetoric saying the issue is whether we can work together tomorrow this is as much a foreign policy statement as it is a domestic policy statement.

Obama's speech also didn't contain many specific policy proposals, but struck a rather bipartisan tone aimed at bridging the stark ideological divide that separates both parties. Was that really the main message of the speech?

Yes, riding on the sentiment of the Tucson shooting he was trying to keep the momentum. Obama knows very well that his very visible attempt at bridging the divide has given him some respite in the polls and that indeed it's not just a matter of popularity, but he needs this as a sine qua non for everything else.

So I would agree that bridging this gap was a key issue and it was also reflected by John McCain, John Kerry and others sitting together. So there is a sense that at least among the moderates that rhetoric is starting to have some effect. But there is no question that this is the prerequisite for everything else on the internal and domestic front.

Will the bipartisan tenor of the speech that was also reflected in the unusual seating arrangement in which Republicans and Democrats sat intermingled instead of apart last or was this just a fleeting rhetorical moment?

There is nothing harder to predict than the future, especially in American politics. I would not venture to predict, but of course one would hope so. Every politician, expert or academic who does not conceive politics in a Carl Schmittian (German political philosopher - the ed.) way of us versus them knows and understands that with the very great challenges all our countries are facing today we just can’t afford parties framing the debate in pure confrontational terms. That we have to work together almost goes without saying.

But we also know that the US system has centrifugal forces. There are a number of analysts who would say that while the US constitution has obviously sustained American democracy and is an amazing document of foresight, it nevertheless has passed its sell-by date in terms of the extreme checks and balances and the extreme mechanism of immobilization of the political system that it induces. But I think it’s important to ask whether therefore Obama's substantive agenda is credible given the uncertainties in terms of bipartisanship.

Besides bipartisanship what were other important aspects of the speech in your opinion and how would rank the speech as a whole?

The speech harked back to a much more simple straightforward inspirational rhetoric which Obama masters so well. It was direct and it was clear in its message so I think it did what it was intended to do. And I think there were two connected themes that are echoed in the European Union. The first is to turn difficulties into challenges that can be overcome. The notion that America has taken its leadership role for granted, but that that is not sustainable if it doesn't invest and innovate. That America will endure, but that it has to chose to do so. And all of that was captured in this idea of the "Sputnik moment."

And on that first kind of very important theme which has been with us for a while in the post cold-war era, it’s interesting that we have had the same Sputnik metaphor used for the EU itself. But here it was used in a very different way and in a much more declinist discourse to state that yes we do have all the technologies to play a leading role in the world, but we don’t have the necessary political will. So that’s a big difference in discourse between the US and the EU. And of course the notion that America can bounce back is much more credible whereas in Europe it isn’t that much.

The second theme, more technically and specifically, was the whole debate about the balance between debt consolidation and growth. And here again while Europeans and Americans obviously face the same very difficult trade offs of reducing debt without freezing growth, I think in Obama’s take there is a significant contrast to that of European countries.

The speech makes it really clear that despite his willingness to reach out and talk about a spending freeze he will not sacrifice growth and long-term investment in education and infrastructure. And that continues to be his mantra and he appears to be vindicated by some of the figures coming in the last few weeks. So he very cautiously and carefully can ride on the sense that it's not terribly unrealistic to say that the US remains the powerhouse of the world economy.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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