WASHINGTON, D.C.- In his State of the Union Address, which lasted just over an hour, United States President Barack Obama discussed the issues that needed the most attention in the remainder of his term. He began by recounting the efforts of a teacher, entrepreneur, auto-worker, farmer, doctor and a father, all of whose slight actions, whether turning on their company’s lights or treating a small child in the country, contributed to building a stronger union.
He ended with stories of American diplomacy and its positive influence on the world. By reminding the nation of its responsibility to treat global issues as global citizens instead of simply Americans, Obama established the U.S. as a country dedicated to improving the lives of all, regardless of nationality.
The personal stories sketched the concerns of a nation through the vignettes of a few, illustrating concerns that have plagued Obama’s administration for the entirely of his two terms: job security, future of the middle class and national safety. While Obama was expected to discuss these national issues, he unexpectedly coupled these concerns with the mounting need for greater foreign relations.
Near the end of his speech, Obama centered his closing remarks around fostering international relations, signifying America’s growing interest to step beyond national concerns and fully commit to helping global issues. While Obama’s State of the Union Address may only be a speech, his expressed commitment to world health issues bodes well for nonprofits like the Borgen Project, who may see greater public awareness and government assistance in confronting global poverty.
A History of Xenophobia
Whenever the U.S. suffers a national or global crisis, a xenophobic backlash typically follows.
Isolationists resisted joining World War II until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When the U.S. did join the war, Japanese-Americans were placed into concentration camps for fear of spies. The attacks on the World Trade Center engendered violence against Muslim Americans, and within the past decade, undocumented immigrants have been deported while the factories that employed them had no one with whom to replace them.
American self-preservation is typically made at the exclusion of all others, even when that exclusion may be to the detriment of U.S. interests.
Obama’s State of the Union Address made it clear that differentiating the interests of the nation with those of the world’s no longer held a place in the union. After he discussed counter-terrorism efforts, the president discussed the need for diplomacy and peace, two ideas he had peppered throughout his speech thus far but until the end had not discussed in full.
“Let’s remember that our leadership is defined not just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe – to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want,” said Obama. “And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.”
It is important to note that Obama could have cut this section entirely. He had the perfect segue from counterterrorism efforts to Cory Remsburg’s story, a disabled Army Ranger who suffered serious injuries during a bombing in Afghanistan.
Instead, he nestled this subject where it counted most: exactly when patriotic fervor may have rallied behind the ‘backed by force’ diplomacy for which the U.S. is known. Instead, Obama chose to emphasize American diplomacy over American might, a shift in government leadership that portends increased global cooperation and greater successes in the fight against worldwide crises.
Inalienable Rights Made Global
By placing the same amount of importance on global health as national health in his speech, Obama demonstrated that American interests and global aid are not mutually exclusive.
Most interestingly, however, is how Obama concludes his speech. He describes American failures and mistakes, but continued pursuit of social justice as an inherent quality that unites all American citizens and the rest of the world.
“For more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress – to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.”
These words echo an inherent quality of being an American citizen. As defined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, all men have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By placing all of humanity under a tenet that constitutes the basis of every American’s inherent freedom, Obama intertwines the common struggles of the American people with those of the rest of the world.
By firmly stitching national and global concerns together, Obama set the United States on a path more dedicated to worldwide cooperation than ever before. Whether battling poverty, hunger, gender inequality or general health issues, hopefully the American public will see it as a world issue, and not simply an American one.
– Emily Bajet
Sources: CBS News, White House, American Presidency Project, US History of Independence
Photo: Council on Foreign Relations