Following President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address at the United States Capitol on Jan. 20, 2015, there has been much speculation about the implications of his plans and policies and about his ability to deliver on these proposals. During his hour-long speech, the president touched on issues from unemployment to foreign policy and made a show of pointing out all the great strides his administration has made towards creating a better America. He made good use of statistics to show how effectively many of his policies have worked, paying special attention to the Affordable Care Act. With unemployment levels and gas prices both on the decline in the United States, the president said that the American economy hadn’t been stronger in years. He touted his policy of middle-class economics as the main catalyst in the recent upturn of the country’s economy.
Regarding America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said that his administration had made a lot of progress. He declared that the number of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had decreased from about 180,000 to fewer than 15,000 in the six years of his tenure. According to him, “for the first time since 9/11, [the] combat mission in Afghanistan is over […], [the] shadow of crisis has passed, and the state of the union is strong.”
I find myself in a difficult position with regards to President Obama’s speech. I think it was very well written and equally well executed, and while critics think it might have been too informal, I think his casual demeanor while presenting his speech only made his speech more palatable to the American majority. What I can’t reconcile myself with, however, are Obama’s words on foreign policy. I found that Obama took on the role of leader of the world’s watchdog nation, an attitude that has become more closely tied to U.S. leadership in recent years. Obama took pride in his continuous efforts to avoid misusing the power of American strength and diplomacy, saying the U.S. has always done justly, but recent events suggest otherwise.
In the last two months of 2014, news headlines worldwide were riddled with reports on the North Korean attack on Sony. In the wake of that attack, President Obama issued a statement that the United States government would not hesitate in retaliating against North Korea. As a result, on Dec. 22, the northeast Asian country lost its connection to the Internet for 10 hours. Earlier that same year, in March, reports had been disclosed by the New York Times based on documents leaked by the former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, that the NSA had been hacking Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei technologies for years. All these events occurred in the wake of the United States’ call for China to reduce its use of cyber-conflict and industrial cyber-espionage. But perhaps even worse than these are President Obama’s comments about Russia during his speech.
Most economists will tell you that the worst thing about economic sanctions is that they don’t really work if the desired outcome is political change. While they might cripple a country’s economy, they don’t do much towards changing the resolve of that country’s leader. In the end it is ordinary people who suffer. As imports become more expensive and inflation rises, it is everyday citizens — people like you and me — who suffer. They are the ones who have to watch their money devalue day by day, not their government — certainly not their leaders.
In his address, President Obama prided himself on being the “bully-slayer” and referred to his triumph against the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (through the sanctioning of Russia) as a fine example of the United States upholding its “principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small.” The sanctions put in place against Russia have led to a shrinking Russian economy with decreases in GDP as the major effect. Furthermore, according to an article on ABC News, the rouble suffered a crippling 43 percent decrease at the end of 2014. To all this, President Obama had this to say: “Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.” So in a sense maybe the sanctions are working, and while Russia plunges into economic meltdown President Obama gloats in his speech.
My point is not that I am fundamentally against the decisions the American government makes, or with the Obama administration for that matter. What really rankles me is that the tone of President Obama’s speech with regards to these issues is insensitive. I cannot deny that the United States has found itself in a position of increasing prominence since the close of the World War II, and that she is arguably the most powerful nation in the world today, but leadership is not a game, and whether or not Obama won both his campaigns, he has no reason to forget that. However, one point I agree with President Obama on is that “the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how.”
If that leadership is one of blatant hypocrisy, then it is unacceptable. President Obama has done a wonderful job of rehabilitating the American economy, and the statistics serve as evidence of his success. But if Obama — even after six years in office — does not have the political maturity to realize that his role in bringing about the collapse of the Russian economy and the consequent suffering of millions of middle-class and poor Russians isn’t really boasting material, then I think there is something wrong with him as a leader. His speech was witty and funny, but at a time when the world is looking up to him to set the standard for leadership, it falls short of my expectations.
In the president’s words, “That’s how America leads: not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” But for his sake and that of the world, I hope he is wrong.