"America is back," President Barack Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address. That sounds muscular, very Schwarzenegger-sque. But America's new avatar is a little different from old Uncle Sam.
In 2009 in his first State of the Union, President Barack Obama said "We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before... It is time for America to lead again."
What a difference one term in office makes.
This year in his State of the Union, Obama, still struggling with a far from recovered economy, laid out a rather different vision:
"But America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs -- and as long as I'm President, I intend to keep it that way."
"An indispensable nation in world affairs" does not quite have the ring of a "leader." It sounds more like a trusted executive assistant -- Warren Buffett's secretary instead of Warren Buffett. Whether Obama intended it or not, it is a shift in the United States' vision of itself, not so much the leader of the free world, rather its very efficient secretary. It is not James Bond. It is not M. America might be back but it wants to be Miss Moneypenny now.
Obama is launching a fight for his second term. This speech was in many ways his first important salvo in his reelection campaign. It was a strong speech and no surprise it was about the economy. The references to America's leadership abroad were more in a Mission Accomplished vein. No Americans are fighting in Iraq. Osama bin Laden is not a threat anymore. The troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home. Check. Check. Check.
When it comes to the world Obama was signaling that America was not interested in anything new, anything visionary, anything leader-like. He instead ran through a checklist of accomplishments and promised more of the same. Alliances with Europe and Asia are stronger than ever. Ties to the Americas are deeper. Stronger. Better. Deeper. These are not visionary words. These are about preserving a status quo, at best making good a little better. Obama pretty much indicated he was going to hold on to the status quo when it came to America's international standing.
"As long as I'm President, I intend to keep it that way."
Even on Iran, while he took no options off the table, he signaled a job well (or at least moderately well) done. A B+ if you will. "A world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran's nuclear program now stands as one," he said.
It is tempting to read this as the sign of the setting of America's sun on the world stage. It is tempting to switch back to the political pundit's favorite reality show -- Who Wants to be the Next Superpower? Will it be China or India or BRIC? But it would be wrong to read this speech as an abdication of America's role on the world stage. It is instead a more realistic recalibration. Even in a multipolar world, America will remain "indispensable" says its president. So don't write it off yet. Bill Emmett, author of Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape our Next Decade, had foreshadowed this a few years ago when he had said that even if the future is about an "Asian century" America will still be the "single most important country in the world in that century but not the dominant one."
Obama's critics have often complained that he wants to be President of the world, rather than the President of the United States. His premature Nobel Peace Prize just heightened that feeling. Now he's buckling down to the job he was actually elected for. He knows that Arab Springs will not affect his campaign but a Detroit winter will. And he's making a virtue out of necessity.
"Right now, it's getting more expensive to do business in places like China," Obama told his audience. "Meanwhile America is more productive. A few weeks ago, the CEO of Master Lock told me that it now makes business sense for him to bring jobs back home."
Read it another way and you could say the president was saying the situation has hit rock bottom. China is up. America is down. It's actually starting to make economic sense to bring jobs back to America. America is affordable again just as foreclosed houses are a good buy.
The President had his usual feel-good cheerleading lines: "When we act together, there is nothing the United States of America can't achieve." But the innate America sense of exceptionalism was more muted. That's not such a bad thing. Superpowers come and go, but everyone always needs a good Moneypenny especially in a bad economy.
The original version of this blog appeared on Firstpost.com.