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Foreign Policy

A Chinese Reflection on Obama’s State of the Union Address

Jan 30 , 2015

On January 20, the US President Obama gave his 6th State of Union Address to the Congress, which is controlled by Republicans for the first time in his two terms. Contrary to the prediction that he would plead with the Republicans for bipartisan cooperation, President Obama made forceful proposals to improve the economy for the middle-class, and warned against any attempt to repeal his signature legislation and executive actions. The liberal agenda and the no-compromise approach predict that US politics may be even more divisive than it was in the past six years.

For Obama, 2014 was both a year of loss and renascence. It is very difficult for him to reject the label of being a “lame duck” after the Democrats’ defeat in the midterm elections. Because of that, he is free from any election, and can act boldly to protect and pursue more his “political legacy.”

Therefore, even though Obama suffered from the election, he still opened his address with a very optimistic tone, trying to prove that his policies over the past 6 years have worked. He said without any hesitation, “the shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.” He also provided evidence for that: the economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999, the unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis, more kids are graduating, and more people are insured.

Based on that, Obama presented his blueprint of middle-class economics. On tax code reform, he plans to increase tax for the wealthy and invest income into infrastructure. He would cut taxes for the middle-class and decrease their living expenses. On employment, Obama again asked the Congress to increase the minimum wage, provide the employee seven days paid sick leave, be committed to “equal job equal pay”, and encourage employers to hire veterans. On education, he proposed two years of free community college education for those who could not afford it, and provide skilled and qualified workers for employers.

Although the US economy has been out of recession for some time, the middle-class has not benefitted much. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening, low-wage employment is everywhere, and the common people’s living standard is not rising. According to CNN, during the recovery the income of the top 1 percent group increased by 31.4 percent, the middle-class, on the contrary, lost income accumulated between the 1990s and 2010s. That is why the National Journal commented that middle-class economics is actually appealing to the people who suffered in the crisis and is preparing Democrats for the 2016 presidential elections. Only when the Democrats have a louder voice on the economy, can they defeat the strong attack from the Republicans.

Obama’s domestic proposals drew loud applause from the Democrats. However, the face of the House Speaker John Boehner was stern throughout the address. Obviously, the President’s proposals were against the Republicans’ policy of cutting the budget, simplifying the tax code, repealing regulation, etc. And the President again warned that he would veto any bill that would destroy his legislation, like Obamacare or the Dodd-Frank Act. In this regard, the Democrats and Republicans may engage in serious fights in 2015.

President Obama is expected to shift his focus on foreign policy after the midterm elections, as most second term presidents have done before. However, judging from the address, there will not be anything remarkable in his approach. On terrorism, Obama said the US is partnering with other nations to deny a safe haven to terrorists, and he called on the Congress to authorize the use of force against ISIL. On US-Russian relations, Obama said that “bigger nations can’t bully the small”, and the US will support the Ukraine’s democracy. On US-Cuba relations, he said the sanctions against Cuba lasted 50 years, and were “long past its expiration date”. Therefore, “it’s time to try something new”. On the Iran Nuclear issue, Obama again threatened a veto if the Congress sent him a new sanctions bill.

The so-called rebalance strategy was regarded as a center-piece of President Obama’s foreign policy. However, the fact that he spent very little time on this made people wonder if it still is his top priority. Obama mentioned China three times, both in a positive and in a negative way. He praised China for its commitment to cut emissions in the future, saying that it set a good example for other nations. But, as he did before, Obama tried to blame China for the US job loss, and indirectly asked China to act in accordance with rules in maritime disputes and cyber security issues.

The most interesting part was when Obama said the US should write rules for the Asia-Pacific region, rather than let China do it. What he said reminded people of when China proposed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to countries in Asia – the US was the first one to dissuade its allies, like South Korea and Australia, from joining the institution. About such behavior, one American Scholar gave an excellent analogy. He said that it just does not make sense when the US refuses to offer drinks and does not let people drink China’s coffee. It’s unfortunate for a major power like the US to act in such a mean way. However, it shows that the US is both narrow-minded, and deeply worried about its decline in the region. It would be much more constructive for the US to join China to make AIIB a highly effective and transparent international institution, rather than blocking and singer-pointing at the start.

It is certainly true that one speech cannot make or break a president, but this State of the Union address did offer some hints for the US domestic and foreign policy in 2015. At least, here we see a more proactive Obama protecting and pursuing his political legacy.

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