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State of the Union

By Ben Coleridge - posted Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Right now President Barack Obama is telling Egyptians that the only way forward is democracy and that the achievement of democracy depends on a united approach by all the parties at play on the Egyptian scene.  He gave a similar message to his own people - unity is the key - in his recent State of the Union address. 

This address was remarkable in a variety of ways. 

It featured an audience of Republicans and Democrats sitting side by side in the chamber in a sign of bipartisanship after the shooting in Tucson of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But the speech was of interest beyond the abnormal seating arrangements. It was a speech clearly designed to be reconciliatory, to bridge the political chasm between Democrats and Republicans which has been deepened during the last two years by acidic debates over healthcare reform, the deficit and taxation.


The issues which face the US, he said, could only be dealt with in cooperation: ‘We will move forward together, or not at all - for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.’  

Curiously, this State of the Union was also markedly adversarial.

The challenges that Obama set the Congress were cast in relation to ‘the other’: those competitors or adversaries who appear to be challenging US supremacy in arenas from science to education. In the speech, it was not just the destructive product of disharmony that warranted a new spirit of bi-partisanship.

Obama held up the spectres of foreign competitors to spur the gathered congress to action: South Korea has faster internet than the average American household, China and Europe are building faster rail networks and, while other countries’ students are studying science and maths, America’s youth are falling behind. In light of these perceived threats to American primacy, the task Obama set was for Americans was to ‘out-innovate’ and  to ‘out-compete’ their challengers, to ‘beat’ them,  and in so doing re-affirm America’s position as un-challenged global leader.

In a telling image, Obama described the present as another ‘Sputnik moment’, a moment where the challenges presented by America’s rivals would spur Americans to unity, action and innovation. The strategy behind the speech could not be clearer: if you want to bring people together, find yourselves a common adversary. It is the oldest trick in the book.

Even if Americans are culturally inclined to be competitive, how helpful is adversarial language and the imagery of ‘the other’ in the context of 21st century realities? And how apt is Obama’s description of these challenges as another ‘sputnik moment’?


America faces a global situation today which is utterly different from that of 1957, when the Soviet Union beat the United States into space. In 1957 the US had only one other rising power to compete with, a power which was competitive with the US in the fields of science and space exploration, but which was still recovering from the disastrous demographic consequences of World War Two and which lacked economic dynamism.

Further, the Soviet Union was more readily categorised as ‘the other’, as it espoused an ideology and global ambitions which were the antithesis of US ideals and policy.

Today, the challenges the US faces are multi-faceted. Economic competition is offered by US allies as well as adversaries, by South Korea as well as by China. Other countries are competing with the US on a whole variety of levels, in infrastructure, technological innovation, agriculture, diplomacy, raw materials exploration and education.

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About the Author

Ben Coleridge is an honours student at the University of Melbourne who writes regularly on social justice and international affairs. He can be followed on Twitter: @Ben_Coleridge.

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