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In search of a legacy

india Updated: Feb 13, 2013 22:43 IST
Barack Obama

The US must lead the world by what it does at home. A State of the Union address by a US president, almost by definition, will always concentrate on domestic affairs. Nonetheless, the first such address by President Barack Obama after his re-election bundled foreign policy issues into a few bullet points at the end of the speech. Mr Obama's main message was that the decade of war that followed September 11, 2001, has come to a close; that the revival of the flagging economic fortunes of the US middle and working classes tops his agenda and, crucially, he sees a major role for the State in carrying out this revival. It would not, however, be a State that worked by spending but one that worked by being 'smarter'.

Mr Obama laid out four areas of economic policy activity that he intends to pursue, areas that he argued would help resuscitate the limping American economy and do so in a manner that would revive the middle quintiles of the US population. "It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth - a rising, thriving middle class," he declared. What is striking about Mr Obama's economic focus is that the four areas he spoke about - manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and housing - are almost a throwback to the drivers that made the US a superpower in the post-World War 2 years. It was not that high-tech did not receive its fair due. Yet, there is a sense that he belie-ves an undue obsession with abstract economic activity - whether Wall Street or Silicon Valley - has led to a skewing of the country's social make-up. Mr Obama reduced foreign policy to a subset of this domestic economic agenda. US military capacities will be par-ed down and troops brought back home to save money. Mr Obama spoke about cutting the US's nuclear arsenal - but as much to cut costs as to avoid radioactive Armageddon. A resumption of the war on carbon to mitigate climate change was announced. But the economic and technological opportunity in renewable energy was stressed more than talk about saving the planet.

While Mr Obama invited the opposition Republican Party to join him in his endeavours, he was also clear he would use his executive authority to work around the legislature if they didn't. Some of the social issues he is pushing - notably immigration reform - will be politically suicidal for Republicans to oppose. Something Obama knows quite well. The state of the union remains fragile. The state of the new administration was quite clear: the new President Obama will be seeking to establish a legacy that would see him being more proactive at home, more passive overseas and more partisan inside Washington.