Later today, President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union Address, filled with the typical pomp and circumstance. Following the pattern of virtually every speech given by each of his predecessors in the Modern Era, Obama will declare the State of our Union is “strong” or something to that effect. Democrats certainly will hope voters feel exactly that way in November as they try to retain the White House for a third straight term, a feat they have not accomplished since President Truman. However, the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has a campaign slogan (Make America Great Again) that could be taken to imply the state of our union is not strong.
So cutting through the partisan spin; what really is the state of the union? I would argue it is strong but unsatisfactory. The fact is that America is the best positioned nation in the world, but there is still much work to be done. In this sense, both sides have valid points to be made; our situation is not necessarily as dire as republicans campaigning suggest while there are greater risks to our future than the President has conceded.
To be frank, the fact we are strong is not really an accomplishment for the President. While we were in deep recession in 2009 when Obama assumed Office, America was still the strongest nation on earth. While our banking system had been crippled by the Housing Crisis and Lehman failure, requiring the Bush Administration to launch widespread bailouts to avert Depression, the worst of the financial crisis had passed by January 20, 2009, and depression was off the table. America was still the center of innovation with the best technology firms in the world residing here, mainly in California. We were the clear global hegemon economically and militarily.
Today, I would argue that last sentence still rings true. Yes, GDP growth has been undeniably sluggish, but our economy is far larger than any other, and it adds far more value than export-driven China, which has run into significant problems of its own of late. The official unemployment rate is down to 5%, and even if we adjust for some of the cyclical weakness in the labor force participant rate, unemployment would be 6.5-7%, which is neither great nor horrible. Yes, China is saber-rattling in the South China Sea, and Putin has caused problems in Syria and Eastern Europe, but our military and naval wherewithal is without rival.
China’s military might is entirely regional, and Putin lacks the economic power to exert influence much beyond his own borders and Syria. Given his nuclear arsenal, we cannot force him to do anything, but he can’t force other nations to do much either. He and China are undoubtedly challenging the U.S. Security Order with limited successes, but the fact remains, there is nary a region in the world where we are not a key (if not the key) player. America is the lone indispensable nation on the face of the earth. The setbacks and loss of influence in the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, and select spots in South Asia are not markers of inevitable decline but rather missteps quickly reversible under new, more assertive American leadership.
Consider the following questions. Is there a nation you would rather be today than the United States? Would you trade America’s future for that of another nation? Is there a more dynamic economy on earth? Would you swap our military power for that of another country? Is there a nation where you can enjoy more political freedoms or economic potential than here?
Chances are you would answer “no” to all (or at least most) of those questions. How then, can one say the state of our union is anything but strong? Again, the same was true in 2008, and it is a testament to just how well positioned America is and how dynamic the American people are that these statements are almost taken as a given. Being “strong” is really not an accomplishment of the President; the accomplishment is not torpedoing that strength, something almost no President could manage to do. That is why the American people rightly demand more than a strong state of the union.
Now, Obama has some indisputable accomplishments. The economy is stronger than in 2008, but it is not strong enough. GDP growth of around 2-2.5% has been positive but not spectacular. Real median income is lower than in 2000; the typical worker has not felt this recovery. This has been a problem for 15 years and is a serious challenge neither party has done a good job of addressing. We need to make structural reforms, restructure our tax code, and improve education to build a stronger economy from the bottom-up to grease the tracks of upward mobility. A poverty rate of 15% continues to be a stain on this country, and our programs need to focus more on lifting people from poverty rather than simply making poverty more comfortable. We need to reform, and yes cut, entitlements like Medicare and Social Security to ensure they will be solvent for those of us who really need them in our later years. Is our economy strong? Yes. Satisfactory? No.
Beyond economics, we have unsatisfactory progress in other areas. Race relations are not where they should be, and in too many communities, police-community (particularly in black precincts) relations are not where they should be. Many parties (from a media that generalizes every story to bad cops to self-aggrandizing community leaders) share the blame, but we need to take steps in local communities to rebuild trust. Gun violence is too high, and this nation does not handle mental illness as well as it could. There are no easy answers, and the gun issue is too often politicized. The scourge of violence is real though. Is our culture strong? Yes. Satisfactory? No.
In foreign affairs, we do not have a clear strategy to permanently roll back ISIS from Iraq and Syria and its outposts in Libya and elsewhere, though our military certainly has the capability to defeat the terrorist organization. We have ceded influence to Iran in the Middle East. Our Eastern European allies are on edge as NATO seems ambivalent about a bellicose Putin, and we are not investing sufficiently in a 21st century Navy that can guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. We have the tools to address these international challenges; it is just a matter of gathering the will and thinking in years not weeks when budgeting and planning. Is our international standing strong? Yes. Satisfactory? No.
The President is right to say the state of our union is strong, and America continues to be the world’s best positioned nation—the world’s only superpower. That said, republicans are right to say we can do a lot to make America even stronger and build an economy that works better for everyday citizens. GOP candidates need to refine their rhetoric and avoid doom and gloom, which is not in sync with reality.
The genius of America is that we are always striving to make the country better because the pursuit of happiness and liberty is an unending effort. We are never satisfied with the state of the union. The GOP should offer clear contrasts with and criticisms of current policy but must maintain optimism. We are an optimistic people, and the optimism is entirely justified.
After all, how else should we feel about the strongest, most morally just nation on earth that serves as a beacon of hope for oppressed people the world over?