Obama's nationalist State of the Union: To win the future, whip the foreigners.

Obama's nationalist State of the Union: To win the future, whip the foreigners.

Obama's nationalist State of the Union: To win the future, whip the foreigners.

How you look at things.
Jan. 26 2011 8:26 AM

Win the Future, Whip the Foreigners

Obama's pitch for national unity: Let's stop fighting and go beat the Asians.

Call center. Click image to expand.
A call center in India

Let's stop fighting and go kick some tail.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

That's the message President Obama delivered last night in his State of the Union address. He took a beating in the November elections. He's facing a Republican House. He's lost his filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. A congresswoman just got shot in the head. Democrats and Republicans were sitting together to hear his speech. And unity is a traditional theme of this annual ritual. So Obama did the natural thing: He urged the country to come together.

"Those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years," he acknowledged. But "Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater—something more consequential than party or political preference. We are part of the American family."

We need "a new era of cooperation," said the president. "At stake right now is not who wins the next election. After all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else."

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Ah. Somewhere else.

That was the theme on which the speech pivoted. In the past, presidents have invoked—and, in the opinion of their critics, started—wars to unite the country behind them. President Bush used 9/11 and Iraq this way. But Obama can't play that card. Military bravado isn't in his nature. There's nothing to brag about in Iraq or Afghanistan—the best Obama could say about those wars last night was that our troops would be coming home—and Americans are preoccupied by unemployment.

So Obama has found a different war to rally the nation: an economic war. We must "win the future," he said. Win against whom? Answer: foreign companies and workers. "We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world," the president declared. "Nations like China and India" are "educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer. So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real."

Obama even dredged up an old goad from the Cold War. "When the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon," he said. But "we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

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When's the last time you heard a president try to whip up nationalist fervor by talking about the Soviets?

The real Sputnik moment, the one 53 years ago, was about a space and arms race against a military enemy. But the new nationalism is economic. It starts with the issue in which Democrats have always invested their xenophobia: trade. "I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers and promote American jobs," Obama proclaimed last night. "That's what we did with Korea, and that's what I intend to do as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia."

Next on the nationalist agenda is infrastructure. "To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information—from high-speed rail to high-speed Internet," said the president. "Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports."

Education, too, is part of our national resurgence strategy, as it was in the Sputnik years. "If we want to win the future—if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas—then we also have to win the race to educate our kids," said Obama. "The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree."

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Obama thinks this quest for victory will unite the country. In his speech, he depicted an infrastructure race in which "connecting every part of America to the digital age" through high-speed wireless access would keep us ahead of the Asian economies. He also spoke of an "education race." "To compete, higher education must be within reach of every American," he reasoned. "If we raise expectations for every child and give them the best possible chance at an education … America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

But nationalism is inherently divisive. It feeds tribalism. It plays on our desire to blame foreigners for our troubles. And in a multiethnic country, it can be internally corrosive. To that extent, it imperils Obama's values. There he stood, the son of a Kenyan government economist, reminding Congress that despite our "different backgrounds," we share a faith in the American dream "no matter where you come from." How easily will that disregard for ethnicity coexist with a Sputnik-style campaign against foreign competitors? Will white Americans see the difference between Asian adversaries and Asian immigrants? We've already conflated Muslim extremists abroad with Muslim moderates at home. That's why Obama had to reassert last night that "American Muslims are a part of our American family."

The issue on which nationalism will cause the most trouble is immigration. "Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens," the president observed. "Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation." He urged Congress to "address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows." But aren't those workers, like their countrymen abroad, competitors for our jobs?

I don't think Obama can sustain this message. Warfare isn't his style. Look at what he ended his speech with: the story of Brandon Fisher, a drilling technology entrepreneur.

One day last summer, he saw the news that halfway across the world, 33 men were trapped in a Chilean mine, and no one knew how to save them. But Brandon thought his company could help. And so he designed a rescue that would come to be known as Plan B. His employees worked around the clock to manufacture the necessary drilling equipment. And Brandon left for Chile. Along with others, he began drilling a 2,000 foot hole into the ground, working three or four days at a time with no sleep. Thirty-seven days later, Plan B succeeded, and the miners were rescued.

It's a beautiful story. We helped pull the Chileans out of the ground. Now let's go hit the books and lay some cable so we can bury them.

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