Leadership through partnership works; democracy without solidarity does not. These are two of the central arguments Barack Obama makes in his eighth and final ‘State of the Union’ address as President of the United States. The first argument builds on the premise that the United States cannot lead by trying to do everything itself; it has to make sure ‘other countries pull their own weight’. The second rests on the idea that ‘democracy does require the basic bonds of trust between its citizens.’ Isolated like this, these claims seem self-evident. In the context of a U.S. presidential election, they are controversial. Indeed, American presidential candidates have been fighting over these issues at least since Barack Obama rose to prominence. This explains in large measure why the United States is so conflicted over the conduct of its foreign policy and so polarized in its domestic political discourse.
Think back to 2004. George W. Bush was incumbent president; John Kerry was his Democratic opponent. And Barack Obama was a state senator from Illinois invited to address the Democratic Party Convention. Obama gave a keynote speech that in many ways overshadowed the one that Kerry gave in accepting the nomination. The argument Obama made was that: ‘alongside our famous individualism, there is another ingredient in the American saga. A belief we are connected as one people.’ This is the passage that introduced Obama’s claim that the American people are not divided by ideology or ethnicity, they are united in their reliance on self-initiative as underpinned by limited government. Nevertheless, Obama admitted, political operatives see advantage in dividing up the electorate and pitting one group against another. This analysis proved more insightful than Obama’s calls for hope to triumph over cynicism. Bush went on to defeat Kerry in a polarizing and divisive election.
That 2004 campaign was a rarity insofar as it focused on national security. Most U.S. presidential elections turn on the state of the domestic economy. And it was in the domain of foreign policy that the argument about leadership through partnership became important. To understand this point it is necessary to accept that no serious contender for the office of the President can deny the inevitability of U.S. global leadership. A few candidates like Ron Paul can insist that the United States should retreat from its global role, and yet they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Candidates who aspire to win the office are restricted to debating the meaning of global leadership. And Kerry learned quickly that his room for interpretation was limited. Kerry argued that true leadership is when you persuade your allies of the correctness of your policies and so convince them to support your objectives. Bush countered that leadership is doing what you think is right no matter what others might believe; if that means going it alone, then so be it. The media jumped on Kerry for giving foreigners an implicit veto over America’s pursuit of its own national interest — the ‘global test’ is what they called Kerry’s definition of leadership. Exit pollsters say the voters agreed with this assessment; although many foreign observers found it hard to imagine, Bush attracted more confidence (and votes) for his conduct of foreign policy.
Less than three years later, Obama was a candidate for the Democratic nomination. The factor that differentiated him from the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, was his staunch opposition to the Iraq War launched by the first George W. Bush administration. Obama built on this record by fleshing out a foreign policy based on comprehensive engagement. He promised to rely heavily on diplomacy; he would even talk with long-term enemies like Cuba and Iran. Obama also built a massive campaign organization around the idea of using hope to counter cynicism. He promised change that would unite all Americans so that the United States could lead by the example of its politics. This strategy was not immediately successful. Clinton argued that Obama was naive to want to speak with foreign dictators; they would only manipulate him for propaganda victories and so create an impression of American weakness. Both Clinton and, later, Republican nominee John McCain argued that Obama used phrases like ‘hope’ to mask his uniquely elitist form of cynicism. McCain’s campaign ran an ad underscoring Obama’s global ‘celebrity’ and McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, used her folksy manner to mock Obama’s ‘hopey-changey thing’. When Russia invaded Georgia, the idea of using diplomacy sounded like weakness and equivocation. The race tightened until the sudden onset of economic crisis gave Obama a decisive advantage.
The next seven years have seen Obama return to the themes of leadership through partnership and democracy with solidarity time and again. His success in winning the argument has been partial at best. Often events have conspired against his initiatives. For example, Obama’s opening to the Muslim world through successive speeches in Ankara and Cairo were eclipsed by the Arab Spring. His attempts to create a dialog with Iran appeared even less successful. Neither the ‘reset’ with Russia nor the ‘pivot’ to Asia had the desired effect. Nevertheless, Obama remained true to the understanding of U.S. global leadership that he inherited from Kerry. He has pushed for engagement and relied on diplomacy first. Obama articulated this view most forcefully in the address he gave on 28 March 2011 to explain U.S. involvement in Libya to the American people. This is where he first articulated the view that true leadership involves creating the conditions within which your friends and allies can carry their own weight. It was more successful as an argument than a policy; Obama does not mention Libya in his most recent ‘State of the Union’ address, probably because the Republicans are using the conduct of U.S. Libya policy to criticize Hillary Clinton’s performance as Secretary of State.
Obama’s efforts to promote democracy with solidarity have been even more mixed. The problem is that solidarity means more than just one thing. Where Obama has pursued compromise, he has had to accept increasing inequality in income and opportunity; where he has pursued greater equality, he has faced disciplined partisan opposition. This is not a necessary trade-off in democratic theory; it is something that has mutated within America’s political DNA. If anything, the United States has become more polarized and more divided during the seven years that Obama has been president. Whether his successive administrations have been the cause of that polarization or just another of its victims is irrelevant. Division is a more central part of the State of the Union now than at any time in recent memory. Hence the real question is what needs to be done to make that situation change.
Obama’s final State of the Union address is important because it is a recommitment to action. He outlines the principles for sustainable U.S. global leadership and he reminds us of the conditions for democratic stability. These things are not self-evident in American politics. On the contrary, they are areas of profound disagreement. Changing that fact is not something that can be done in one or even two presidential administrations. People are slow to abandon their beliefs, particularly when those beliefs correspond with self-interest, and events tend to get in the way. Hence this speech should be read as a call to action that will have to be undertaken over the longer term and on a grassroots basis. What Obama does not mention, given that his address focused on the ‘State of the Union’, is that this kind of effort is required across democratic societies and not just in the United States.Follow @Erik_Jones_SAIS
For more on U.S. foreign policy, see my 2012 book with Dana Allin — Weary Policeman: American Power in an Age of Austerity.