Obama talked big ideas, as expected. I’ve been critical of his rhetorical big talk before, but last night, he didn’t pass over policy specifics without good reason. After thinking over the variety of messages in his seventh and final address, I saw a carefully constructed theme of innovation – specifically technology – as a unique American trait that can answer today’s changes.
Last night, the man who brought us “Change We Can Believe In” brought us reassurance in our ability to overcome the changes we’re not so sure about.
Americans identify strongly with their careers on an individual basis, and in a nationalistic sense proclaim devotion to the dream, or promise, of meritocracy founded on their own grit and hard work. Yet technology has sent many Americans for a loop as they find their jobs outsourced in an age of more globalized business supply lines and displaced for the dreaded automated customer service voice.
“We live in a time of extraordinary change — change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world. It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”
I’ve seen this personally, with my dad’s commercial art career path shifting quickly to require digital graphic work that his degree didn’t account for. But Obama offers us an answer in the address, an opportunity to get on top of change and see America as a hub for technology and innovation. He also points out how significant changes in compensation and insurance for workers help out in these changing times, specifically while workers transition between jobs.
Economic criticism has centered on the degree to which progress in overall growth has really affected “Main Street,” yet I think Obama took too long to get to his point about the concrete changes he has made for workers, like with overtime pay.
As a student in social sciences and the humanities, I feel overshadowed by Northwestern’s emphasis on STEM education, like my career path is less essential. In this environment, I am less receptive to Obama’s pushes for technical education. Yet, I understand how it offers a smarter academic path for many Americans and can certainly help America in the long road to catching up in research and development. The U.S. ranks in a low tier among OECD countries in producing STEM degrees, and most students who study STEM fields in the U.S. are actually international students.
“How do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?”
Here, Obama linked technological changes to progress in healthcare, education, energy, the economy and a redefined vision of American leadership.
Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources they’ve had in over a decade. Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done.
Cancer steals loved ones from us all. It’s a deeply personal issue for countless Americans, and the man in charge of the initiative, Joe Biden, lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. He reminded us that scientific research is not only an element of American leadership globally, but also a pathway to bring hope to what can be a family’s darkest moment. This was one of the most genuine and inspiring moments of the address.
He spun alternative energy as business opportunity, touted online education and entrepreneurship tools, and painted innovation as the most promising brand of American exceptionalism.
First, he pointed to innovation and leadership in ideas.
“When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us.”
The administration’s biggest weakness is undoubtedly foreign policy. It was clever to emphasize international coalitions that the U.S. leads, in a quintessentially-Obama sweeping statement, which was true for the Paris climate agreement, but certainly has not succeeded in Syria.
As someone who just spent a few months in Beijing, however, I will say that Obama was right to cite innovation as a key element of America’s global economic success. In a Chinese Economics course, my classmates and I debated whether or not China would be able to innovate like the U.S. does, with a negative conclusion for China. While that debate’s answer is of course not decided in an undergraduate classroom, or ever really “decided,” America definitely can and should be proud of its entrepreneurship and creativity. The World Intellectual Property Organization ranks the U.S. the 5th most innovative country in the world in 2015.
The middle of the address focuses on foreign policy, where Obama mismatched security and foreign policy successes with the problems we’re facing today.
The U.S. often leads international coalitions. That’s great. But Obama chose to cite its leadership in the Syrian conflict, utterly failing to acknowledge the tragedy of the humanitarian crisis and using “leading” to describe a policy that has changed from 2011’s “Assad must go,” to Kerry in 2015, “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change, as it is known, in Syria.”
“On issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight. That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.”
Sad to see Obama citing US approach to Syria as a "smarter approach." Syria is Obama's greatest foreign policy failure.— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) January 13, 2016
On ISIS, Obama gave a perspective that I hope viewers paid attention to.
But they do not threaten our national existence.
Apart from the reality of ISIS’s ground game weakening his words, his own rhetoric made him appear weaker. “They must be stopped,” he added a few times, off script, which seemed almost Trump-like in its vague declaration of a goal. He also cited counter-terrorism victories in targeting leaders of Al Qaeda, which didn’t really address American concerns about ISIS, or the real policy question of stability for the Middle East.
But he closes with a beautiful rhetorical strategy, transferring the power back into the citizen’s hands. In a speech many expected to favor a presidential candidate, Obama did indeed comment on the race, but instead, he spoke with American citizens. He also reached across the aisle (seven years later) by opening with a bipartisan statement, reached out to Speaker Ryan to work together on poverty and emphasized small business opportunities. Obama handed off the future of tolerance and cooperation to citizens, and pledged to do what he could to create a fairer political process where the voices he encourages can be heard.
But I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen — inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. [...] voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love. They’re out there, those voices. They don’t get a lot of attention, nor do they seek it, but they are busy doing the work this country needs doing. I see them everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours. I see you.
Obama managed to elevate America above hateful rhetoric and political division. We needed it, because many of us have felt ashamed of our country in this past year. Most importantly, he didn’t call on a political party to enact change. He called on us, he identified those of us who are doing what we can to promote real American values, and he reminded us he will be joining us in a year to do the same.