The National Times

by David Smith

Today's State of the Union had all the hallmarks of a typical election-year address: an exclusive focus on big campaign issues, jabs at President Barack Obama's opponents and more mentions than usual of the word "American".

This year, Obama will try to take the word "American" back from his opponents. His 2008 election talk of change and transformation became a weapon in the hands of Republicans and the Tea Party, who took it as evidence that this aloof intellectual didn't much care for America and wanted to recast it as a European socialist welfare state. Republicans no longer claim Obama might have been born in Kenya, but Newt Gingrich will continue to tell supporters that Obama hates America because of the anti-colonial dreams of his Kenyan nationalist father. Conservatives charge that the "change" Obama wanted was to change America into another country.

The State of the Union speech suggests that this year Obama will claim he is the one interested in restoring "American values", the kind that existed when Americans still had manufacturing jobs and had never heard of collateralised debt obligations. While he talks about innovation and the future, his rhetoric is deeply nostalgic for an earlier era of American industrial supremacy. He speaks of the need for an economy that is "built to last", an old slogan of American manufacturing prowess that was once used by everyone from business writers to gangsta rappers.

Such an economy, Obama argues, requires "fairness". Everyone must contribute and everyone must play by the same rules, which means no bailouts or tax breaks for businesses that ship jobs overseas. While Republicans have amply harnessed anti-government rage for three years, Obama knows many Americans hold financial institutions and their stupendously wealthy CEOs equally responsible for the quagmire of the past decade. They may not buy the rhetoric of "equality" that Occupy Wall Street wants, but he will hope "fairness" can catch on as a rallying cry. This language can be nationalist as well as liberal; part of the address was used to scold China for its "unfair trade practices" and to promise action.

The Obama camp was preparing for battle against Mitt Romney, once the prohibitive Republican frontrunner they seek to paint as a callous plutocrat who only knows how to put people out of work. His kind of capitalism, they argue, is unpatriotic. Gingrich has already laid the foundations for this attack, so effectively that he may end up as the opponent instead. Gingrich's suggestion that children of the poor should get jobs as janitors plays well to the Republican base, but will allow Obama to draw a sharp contrast with his pitch of improving education and sharing prosperity.

Obama needs to convince the American people that the government is capable of promoting innovation and reviving the economy, whose sluggish recovery he has so far blamed on an unco-operative Congress. It is anyone's guess whether his rhetoric will work. The economy itself will make the final judgment.