Last night President Obama delivered his State of the Union address to a Congress divided on almost every issue imaginable. You’ve heard the response from the American pundits and Twiterrati. Here are three must-reads from overseas that put a foreign perspective on a largely domestic speech.
“America’s status quo”
The headline on this op-ed from Deutsche Well pretty much sums up Christina Bergmann’s view of the president’s address: “Obama overreaches with sweeping agenda.” Bergmann argues that Obama’s optimistic opening — “the state of our union is stronger” — was belied by a laundry list of economic, social and international problems, problems even an invigorated Obama does not possess the political clout to push through a divided Congress. The budget, Medicare, jobs, tax loopholes, infrastructure, immigration, election laws and guns. But things are good…right?
Bergmann takes a hard line on a speech that, she says, was repetitive of Obama’s previous promises while being short on details. She praises his call to raise the minimum wage, and acknowledges that immigration reform will likely make it through both houses of Congress. But in a speech that largely focused on domestic issues, Bergmann didn’t hear many new ideas. And the same goes for his foreign policy proposals; Bergmann calls his commitment to Israel’s security “an obligatory statement to avoid any type of criticism.”
Bergmann doesn’t totally fault Obama for his speech’s shortcomings, as she sees them. Instead, she says the state of the union was a sad reinforcment of “America’s status quo”:
Obama appeared more relaxed and more determined than during past speeches – which is no surprise, given that he’s not fighting for reelection. However, his window of opportunity is closing. Congressional elections are coming up in two years. If he and his administration manage to push through immigration reform, that – together with his health care reform – would constitute an admirable achievement. He’s unlikely to get more done. In that sense, his to-do list can be seen as a legacy for his successor – and as a sobering analysis of America’s status quo.
“The devil is in the details”
While it received lukewarm applause in Congress last night, many European Union leaders were probably giving a standing ovation to Obama’s endorsement of a trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement, says Gregor Peter Schmitz of Spiegel Online. “It is an idea the Europeans threw their support behind at the last EU summit in Brussels,” says Schmitz. “And Obama didn’t disappoint.”
Trade between the two regions already accounts for more than 50 percent of the global gross domestic product and secures an estimated 15 million jobs. US investments in France and Belgium alone in 2010 were as high as in India and China combined, says Dan Hamilton from the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University.
Should this trade become easier due to the elimination of tariffs and, in particular, cumbersome regulations, it could generate economic growth of up to 1.5 percent on both sides of the Atlantic, according to estimates by the US Chamber of Commerce.
But Schmitz says the devil is in the details. Will the U.S. Congress accept European standards on array of products and services? Schmitz says that in the past the two sides could not agree on a model for a crash-test dummy:
Whether it has to do with the length of car bumpers, the permissibility of genetically modified corn or the correct method to be used when slaughtering beef, trade talks are often just as complicated as nuclear non-proliferation negotiations. By their very nature, they touch on issues that are often vital to the cultural identities of certain countries or regions.
“Perhaps the turning point has arrived”
Writing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Neil MacDonald argues that Obama’s speech veered between two extremes: the “activist” who wants to beef up social programs and the responsible budget manager who pledges to do so, in the president’s words, “without adding to the deficit by a single dime.” The problem, MacDonald says, is that the U.S. is a lot more like Canada than we want to believe. Despite our fervent denials, he writes, the modern U.S. is very much a “welfare state.” Government spending accounts for about 40 cents of every dollar in the American economy, according to MacDonald, nearly exactly the same as our northern neighbors, whom we delight in calling socialists.
So while Americans love to praise small government, we still want all the services of a federal behemoth — and lower taxes too! Obama recognizes that tension and was forced to pivot between social spending and deficit reduction. That, writes MacDonald, made his speech “confusing” and “rambling”:
The Treasury is exhausted, and the central bank cannot continue to print money indefinitely. So last night, Obama made it clear that all those retiring baby boomers, who will expect top-notch, on-demand free health care, will be disappointed, not unlike the way they are in Canada. It’s hardly in line with Democratic party orthodoxy, but Obama made it clear that “modest reforms” — meaning less services — are inevitable.
Gone is all [the president’s] first term hope-and-change rhetoric, not that it ever amounted to much anyway. In its place stands a man trying to live up to the progressive expectations he once raised, and trying to govern a nation that is notoriously difficult to govern. The United States by doctrine believes itself to be exceptional. And it is. It’s just not exempt from the laws of economics. Nations cannot indefinitely spend and cut taxes simultaneously. Perhaps the turning point has arrived.