In this year’s State of the Union, President Obama presented a clear road map for ensuring that the United States will remain the predominant power in the world for generations to come. Foreign policy elites who lament the primary focus on “domestic issues” are missing the main point of this year’s address and indeed the Obama presidency: A strong, confident American middle class is a prerequisite for the exercise of American power and leadership on the world stage.
From the first days of his presidency, against strong political opposition, President Obama met the challenges of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression with an activist federal government. President Obama used the presidency and the power of the federal government to stabilize a faltering financial system, save whole sectors of the economy, like the auto industry, and expand the social safety net with the provision of universal health care coverage. This was a conscious set of policy choices, and it has led to the indisputable fact that since the onset of the Great Recession, America has put more people back to work than all the advanced economies of Europe and East Asia combined.
In this State of the Union, President Obama once again put forward his plan for the next two years and created a first draft for a future Democratic administration by calling on the federal government to provide universal access to community college, enhanced job training, investment in infrastructure and affordable child care. In the 21st century, these investments in the education and training of a national workforce while providing the tools it needs to succeed are the foundations of national economic power. They are also essential to maintaining a strong middle class—the key ingredient to America’s rise to global influence during the 20th century and a prerequisite for maintaining the public support for the expenditure of resources to exercise global leadership.
Critics who characterize this speech as a call for increased social spending and a plan of class warfare could not be more wrong. Did they not hear that President Obama called for a massive expenditure of public money to benefit the private sector by investing in key infrastructure that will make them more competitive in a global market place? The Chamber of Commerce and other American business leaders must have applauded the president’s support for “strong new trade deals” that would establish free trade with Europe and East Asia. Indeed, President Obama made the stakes for American economic global leadership clear when he said, “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. We should write those rules.”
This was far from being just a “domestic” speech that simply proposed increased social spending for an inward-looking America. It was not a poll-tested laundry list of micro-initiatives or a Manichean call to arms to save the world from dark forces. Instead, President Obama used the occasion of the State of the Union to remind the American people of the miracle of their improbable economic comeback, and to focus us all on the next stage of American recovery: to expand economic opportunity and build a sustainable foundation for a strong and secure middle class able to compete and win in an everchanging world.
President Obama’s clear understanding of how to use this growing national power on the world stage in the 21st century should give reassurance to America’s allies, and give pause to our adversaries. “We leverage our power with coalition building,” the president said. “The question is not whether America leads, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads…then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts and neglect the broader strategy…That’s what our enemies want us to do.”
We have seen the application of this Obama doctrine when applied to the measured and patient use of power to respond to crises from Kabul to Crimea and North Korea to Nigeria. Think of the global coalitions he has built for action to prevent development of an Iranian nuclear bomb, to resist Russian aggression, to roll back ISIL. President Obama’s careful use of American power on the world stage preserves our resources, expands our networks of influence and distributes the burdens of maintaining global order. This is a sustainable use of American power in the world, one that can maintain the support of the American people and our allies. This strategy is a far cry from the risky behaviors and squandering of opportunities of neo-conservative unilateralism which worsened our economy and increasingly isolated America.
Some may be inclined to see the foreign policy section of the State of the Union as a ‘speech within a speech,’ disjointed from the president’s more lengthy remarks about middle class economics. But in weaving these stories together, the president has hit on the exact strategy that America needs to remain the leading power of the 21st century with the ability to shape its own security environment and prosper in a rapidly changing world. Using the power of the federal government, forward-thinking administrations can build an economy that strengthens the middle class, educates and trains a workforce second to none, forges alliances, expands our zone of influence through wise and bold leadership, and uses force only when necessary.
President Obama’s State of the Union was a speech that mattered. It is a plan for the sustainable use of American power and in support of active global leadership, through strengthening the foundation of that power: the American middle class. This is a road map for ensuring that America’s best days are not behind it, but that the years ahead will be known as the “Next American Century.”
Scott Bates is the President of the Center for National Policy. He is a former advisor to the House Committee on Homeland Security with years of experience in international politics and policy.