Morning in America (SOTU 2016)


A mixed bag. About the United States as a country, about commitments to working people and expanding opportunity, about job security and health security, about innovation, and against religious intolerance, about change and what brings us together as a country, about all of this  President Obama spoke many beautiful words. But the speech fell flat when after talking persuasively about homeland he went on to talk about the world, the one we don’t want to police.

If we are the strongest economic and military power in the world, then what are our international obligations? Has Middle East been given over to Russia? Will the Iran Deal actually aggravate the civil war in Syria and other conflicts? Will the civil wars in Syria and Iraq continue to aggravate violence across the region and a refugee crisis with which our friends and allies in Europe may not be able to cope? Will that refugee crisis not aggravate extreme right wing politics in Europe? Has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict been left high and dry? Is it best not to talk about the things we can’t fix, the ones we don’t want to fix? But then what is it that a superpower is supposed to do if not to project itself into the world? There would be little evidence to support the claim briefly presented in the State of the Union Speech that the United States has done much effectively to resolve these conflicts.

Intent on defining a progressive legacy, this was also an inward looking and jingoistic speech including smack talk, American exceptionalism, and American economic and military power. Ironically, what could be looked at as the anti-internationalism in the President’s speech reflected back in mirror image the sunny side and forward looking version of the very same insularity that has soured the national conversation in the GOP primary race. His already much maligned remark about “millennial old conflicts in the Middle East” is an index not just to the hopelessness of this Administration’s policy there, but mimics the very fear and racism at home that the President himself wants to check.

That’s the incoherence. Circling back, the idea of free community college and “Let’s be the country that cures cancer once and for all” came out pretty hollow. That is because the progressive agenda that President Obama wants to secure at home as his legacy will depend upon a more robust international pivot. How could that not be the case in the Age of Globalization,  which today means coming to terms with the Middle East where the fighting and dying has done so much to roil not just the world but our own national life in this country?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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