The presidency of Barack Obama has been girded by a belief that the United States can no longer be as economically generous and militarily active as it once was. The costs of the global financial crisis and the sapping experience of two inconclusive wars combined with the US president’s own inclination to concentrate on his country’s many domestic problems may have led to this view. This is understandable. But it is not sensible. A US unwilling to uphold the international trading system, an America that seeks to protect its jobs from external competition or a superpower that gives up its global policing tasks can and will have consequences that, in the long run, will come back to bite the US. Mr Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday was primarily a message to the opposition Republican Party urging them to end the present legislative gridlock that has paralysed Washington. But elements of his America First mindset were evident in his speech. New Delhi, which has been frustrated by an inward-looking Oval Office, will have reason to be happy that Mr Obama will continue to struggle to convert elements of what he said into actual policy.
The core economic agenda of Mr Obama, now that US growth rates are starting to go uphill, is the creation of jobs. However, the president has partly broken from the free market consensus that the US leadership held to since the end of World War II. When he calls on the US Congress to join him to “end those incentives to ship jobs overseas”, the Indian software service industry has reason to ask for more details. His endorsement of the present US immigration reform Bill which, while helpful to Indian immigrants, also has punitive measures against Indian outsourcing firms. India will rightfully wince at Mr Obama’s claim that the US military can withdraw from Afghanistan because its “mission” has been accomplished. That could not be further from the truth. Afghanistan is set to descend back into another round of internecine warfare — and this can be partly blamed on those who applaud his strong support for the dialogue with Iran. But it is noteworthy how almost no congressman clapped when Mr Obama spoke of it.
Mr Obama used to unnerve New Delhi by his talk of jobs moving from “Buffalo to Bangalore” and his demands that Americans needed to prepare for the coming competition posed by China and India. It is perhaps a statement of how far India has slipped in the global economic sweepstakes that Mr Obama did not mention India in this speech, referring only to how “China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines”.