Obama’s SOTU Proposals Weren’t ‘Class Warfare’—They’re A Global Strategy

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio,... President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen in the background. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool) MORE LESS
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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.

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  1. Good column. Well done, and I hope to hear further debate and discussion in the area of the trade deals as these proposals move forward.

    There has been a lot of criticism from liberals on the internatio0nal trade deals with Europe and Asia that the Obama administration is working on. While little is yet known about them, a lot of the criticism seems to be reflexive. It seems many see any trade deal as a NAFTA-on-steroids, which inspired Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound,” which he described as the sound of American jobs going to Mexico, with its low wages, low unionization, and poor record of support for labor right and environmental protections.

    On trade deals, many fear the Asia and Europe trade deals Obama is negotiating, arguing that, just like NAFTA, they would undercut the interests of American workers and put them at a competitive disadvantage if trade barriers with low-wage nations with little in the way of labor or environmental protections were lowered, thereby encouraging American jobs to be exported to cheap labor areas with poor labor and environmental practices.

    But what if this were not the case? The US-Korea trade deal (work on which was actually begun under Bush, but was rewritten under Obama) did not put us at a disadvantage – they actually opened up Korea to the American auto and agricultural industries.

    And at the European Summit several months ago, the head of the European Council, citing US Republicans’ support of anti-union “Right to Work” laws and an easing of environmental regulations, expressed concerns that a trade pact with the US would lead to a loss of European jobs.

    Can you believe – he was actually expressing concern for a “sucking sound” that would take European jobs and move them to the US a la NAFTA!

    Obama assured him he had no intention of easing environmental regulations or worker protections as a means of luring European jobs to the US.

    We need to be skeptical and vigilant, but should we just automatically assume that a trade deal negotiated under this administration, even if it were conditioned on firm labor and environmental protections  to support American workers and jobs, would undercut the interests of American workers and should lead to WTO-style protests from the Left?

    Many have criticized the closed-door nature of the proceedings, but since when has a trade deal been negotiated in public? Some in Congress have been opposing Obama’s call for fast-tracking the deal, and while I can understand the concerns, I would trust Obama more than this current Congress to craft a bill that supports the interests of American workers, and supports the labor and environmental protections he has championed.

    Also, we need to consider context. The economy is globalized; we cannot be isolationist in our thinking. Many of our economic partners are weak and have not recovered from the global recession as well as we have. Encouraging international trade could help to “lift all boats” and also reduce the tendency towards radicalization that economic uncertainty sometimes encourages.

    Also, China is making moves for their own version of an Asian common market. I would rather we get there first.

    Similarly, another fear of the Left is Obama’s expressed willingness to engage the Republicans on tax reform. He has pivoted on signaling his willingness to engage by sharing his proposal to consider some tax break to expatriated capital – some trillions in overseas accounts – if it was part of an infrastructure bank or some other way to leverage investment in public capital projects. Some fear a “cave” to moneyed interests seeking a break on taxes.

    What do you think the reaction might be to a deal that could allow expatriated money from Google, Caterpillar, Apple or some other firm to return to the US and be taxed at a lower than normal rate, under the condition that it be placed in a multi-year bond with the dividends tax-free or taxed at a lower rate, and the monies be used to fund infrastructure projects? Do you think the Left would be outraged and call it a “cave?”

    I pose these questions because I am interested in finding ways to overcome the bottleneck in Washington and identify ways to bring a real economic recovery to our nation and the world. If done right, trade deals could help to establish wider support for increased wages, better worker and environmental protections overseas, and lay the basis for better international cooperation and prosperity. And that could simplify our foreign policy and strengthen ties between allies.

  2. Who gives a fuck if they’re “class warfare”? Is it not time that the lower and middle classes started fighting back against the extreme upper classes, who are robbing them blind and sapping what little political power they have left?

    How many times do you need to be slapped before you say “NO MORE!” ??

  3. Avatar for mymy mymy says:

    What Obama’s SOTU did, beyond being thoroughly enjoyable to listen to, was lay out the agenda for the future of the country–and the Democratic party, if they are smart enough to ‘get’ it.

    Stupid Peter Baker at the NYT wonders what the use of the agenda is if there’s no hope of enacting it.

    Well, SOMEBODY has to articulate an agenda that speaks for all the people and works on their behalf! Otherwise government just becomes a bunch of pettifogging bureaucrats and bribe takers, without any purpose other than self-perpetuation in office.

    Obama has always had in view the good of the whole country–and yes, the world. Name one Republican who comes close to having this truthfully said about him or her.

  4. The trouble with class warfare is that there isn’t enough of it.

  5. Absolutely. The “conservative” (it’s really reactionary) agenda was laughed off for a few decades after it was first proposed. Sadly, by persevering the “conservatives” managed to make their hooey sound almost reasonable. Progressives/liberals, whatever you want to call us, need to sign on for the long walk, too.

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