President Obama set the theme for this year's State of the Union address early: 'the shadow of crisis has passed', he declared, and throughout the speech he returned repeatedly to the idea that America is a 'strong, tight knit family' that has 'made it through some tough times.'
So although this wasn't much of a foreign policy speech, that renewal theme was no doubt intended to send a message to a global audience: the declinists were wrong; America has recovered and is roaring back, determined to maintain global leadership.
How will it exercise that leadership? There wasn't much of a unifying theme other than a clear enunciation of Obama's Don't Do Stupid Stuff doctrine. Although Obama's predecessor wasn't mentioned by name, Bush's shadow clearly lingers: the President talked in his introduction of America having approached the world 'fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing'. Obama mentioned his reluctance to 'getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East'. And there was this (emphasis mine):
My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America. In doing so, the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.
In the following paragraph he tried to reinforce the point, but was let down by what looks like some really poor speech drafting (my emphasis):
I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now — and around the globe, it is making a difference.
You see the point he's trying to make, but it sounds like he's saying that letting fear blind America to opportunities is 'exactly what we're doing right now'.
Speaking of unintended messages, what about this line: 'If you want somebody who’s going to get the job done, hire a veteran.' I wonder if John McCain smiled when he heard that. It would have made a decent campaign slogan in 2008...
Asianists would probably have been disappointed with the speech; the region was mentioned only in passing and mainly to provide a segue to a long section on climate change. There was no mention of the pivot. Asia specialists who are perpetually let down by the lack of presidential attention on their pet issue should read this piece by Robert Kelly. The region just doesn't have as much foreign policy resonance in Washington as terrorism, Iran and Russia.
But despite the lack of Asia focus, Obama did use the issue of free trade to take a sharp geopolitical jab at Beijing:
China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.
I don't think he was just talking about Trade Promotion Authority.
Back to climate change: Obama landed some nice rhetorical blows ('I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate') and made a loud public declaration that the US would take the lead in 2015:
I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action. In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.
Watch out, Paris. Obama is coming.
Speaking of rhetorical blows, you've got to hand it to Obama for his relaxed and folksy demeanour. No matter what the polls say, the guy remains confident and supremely self-assured. There was the little aside to Republicans who did not clap Obama's list of economic achievements ('this is good news, people'), and there was his devastating ad lib after Republicans applauded his statement that he would have no more campaigns to run: 'I know because I won both of them', then a sly wink.
I'm told Republicans regard Obama's growing informality in his successive State of the Union speeches as unbecoming because it gives the speech a campaign flavour. From an Australian perspective, I would say it gives his remarks a parliamentary tone. It's quite common here for parliamentary speakers to engage with their own side and tease the opposition. The public hates it but good parliamentarians and effective leaders know it is a crucial tool for building morale among your own MPs and undermining the opposition. Maybe Obama sees that too.