Obama's dreams exposed to the glare of harsh political realities
US President Barack Obama came roaring back this week with a strong state-of-the-union address, promising to put America back to work as the world's greatest country. It was wonderful theatre in the chamber of Congress that has done much to taunt Obama and snuff out the hopes so many Americans had of the new young, intelligent, telegenic president.
The problem for Obama, and for America, is that there are too many contradictions between his promises and the dirty real world. You had only to watch the glazed eyes, hauntingly hostile, of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, sitting behind Obama's left shoulder, to realise Republicans will oppose Obama tooth and claw.
Yes, this is election year and Obama was laying out his stall to create, as he put it, 'a country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of hi-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we're in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded'.
He declared that America has a choice: 'We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.'
Such marvellous presidential dreams, similar to the ones with which candidate Obama captivated so many followers. Unfortunately, Obama has had three years in the White House, and the lot of many ordinary Americans has got worse. He is fighting not only against his own failures to turn soaring rhetoric into political reality, but also against determined opponents who deride Obama as either a socialist or, worse, a closet European.
In addition, he faces economic headwinds of slow growth and unemployment not seen since the 1930s. On top of that, America's place in the world is rapidly changing and its predominance is being challenged in ways that Obama seems unable to admit and Republicans are dangerously determined not to.
The president suggested various ways to revive the economy and employment, including giving tax credits to companies bringing jobs back and denying them to those outsourcing jobs, and for pumping money saved from fighting wars into badly needed renewal of US infrastructure. But there seems little hope that Republicans, determined above all to tackle the debt and pander to the rich, will agree.
In laying into the rich who benefit from tax breaks that reduce their tax rates to 15per cent or less, Obama was both taking a dig at Republican rival Mitt Romney, who paid just 13.9per cent tax on his 2010 earnings of US$21.7million, and presenting himself as the leader of ordinary Americans. But Republicans persist in their belief that it is the rich who create jobs.
The loss of American manufacturing jobs is undoubtedly serious. In the current issue of The Atlantic, Adam Davidson tells a joke from the heartland of cotton country, where the textile mill has been almost completely automated, and is run by a man and a dog: the man's job is to feed the dog, and the dog's job is to see that the man does not get anywhere near the machines.
Obama made much of the revival of the US car industry, although the bailout started under president George W. Bush. This was also a dig at Romney, who had called for the industry to go through a pre-packaged bankruptcy.
However, Obama began to tread on dangerous ground in announcing plans to create a special trade unit to investigate 'unfair trade practices in countries like China'. Singling out China is a potentially dangerous game of trying to steal Republican clothes. The US and China are both members of the World Trade Organisation, which is the global forum for settling trade disputes.
Why blame China? Recent research by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco shows Chinese goods accounted for a mere 2.7per cent of US consumption expenditure. Moreover, that figure overstates China's dominance because, for every dollar of goods sold in the US labelled 'made in China', US businesses take 55 cents and Chinese get 45 cents.
One reason is that Americans like to regard themselves as God's only favoured nation. Obama feeds the myth, proclaiming that, 'Our workers are the most productive on earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you - America will always win'. But in the following few minutes, he was lamenting failures in American education and training, finance, infrastructure, government, taxation and Congress.
I have to sympathise with Obama. Republicans have long taunted him with being un-American. Even with the evidence of his birth certificate, some claimed he was foreign-born, or was a Muslim because of his middle name 'Hussein'. Later, he was accused of being a socialist. Now Romney calls him a European.
So Obama overcompensates. The US may still be 'the one indispensable nation in world affairs' as he put it, but it needs to learn from and co-operate with others, especially in matters of great global moment, or we will all be sunk. No one appreciates American bullying. But humility is the one lesson lost on US politicians.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator