At a time when Donald Trump is frequently deploying misogynistic, racist and ill-informed views on policy during his campaign trail and steering political conversation and the Republican Party in a direction that conservatives cringe from, it is particularly salutary for someone to remind American politicians of principles that ought to inform their vocation. US President Barack Obama sought to do just that in his customarily eloquent — and his last State of the Union speech on Tuesday. In a philosophical speech that strives to move the debate to the Centre from where his party can contest this year’s presidential contest, Mr Obama presented a searching analysis of the American condition and forcefully reminded politicians of their obligations to citizens.
Other world leaders would do well to heed Mr Obama’s diagnosis, even if it was articulated for the purposes of prodding Congress to back his policies. The world is changing, “today technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated”.
Mr Obama said the “private sector is the lifeblood” of the US economy but said that citizens need a safety net to negotiate the changing world, whether it be through state support to education and health or through insurance that allows individuals to retrain in an economy that demands new skills while being able to pay their bills and not “lose what they’ve already worked so hard to build”. A running theme of his speech is the discontent that average citizens feel over their current situation and uncertain future prospects in a system they see as rigged in favour of the rich by politicians who themselves happen to enjoy tenured professional lives.
Mr Obama also spoke about paying attention to the quality of democracy by rejecting politics that targets people because of race or religion. He argued in essence that a country can plan its future purposively, if it can value diversity, debate without representing opponents as unpatriotic, and if leaders are able to compromise and when the average person feel their voice matters. Nikki Haley, the Indian-origin governor of South Carolina, speaking for the opposition and mindful of the Trump effect on the Republican party, conceded that her party should bear some of the blame for problems the US faces and why its government is broken. It was a touching note of contrition but few expect it to last.
There were no surprises on foreign policy. Mr Obama said the US would continue to lead on challenges like ISIS but would prefer consensual approaches involving other nations rather than costly unilateral initiatives. The speech notably lacked direct criticism of China, a change from last year where he accused Beijing of resorting to unfair trade practices.