Obama’s SOTU Address and the underlying malaise: middle class versus “exceptionalism”

In this year’s SOTU, the second last by US President Barak Obama, there were many admirable things which the President stated as goals or as accomplishments.  In particular, there were apparent gains for the economy and, of course, in the provision of health care.  But, rather than goals or accomplishments (though they were, of course, placed into the record),  what he made the focus of his address, for the economy, for foreign relations and for the environment were “principles” that were to act as guiding precepts,  On the one hand, he put forward a valourization of “middle class economics”, one that has the interests of that class as its mandate, both toward pulling up the poor (although “the poor” were in scant direct mention) and in redistributing from the wealthy ( stiffer progressive taxation of both people and corporations was mentioned, albeit handled with kid gloves  – but, at least, it also made the public record).  So, the revitalization of “the middle class” rather than an oligarchic class, rather than a privileged class, or a celebrity class, has again come to the fore, with this presidential endorsement of it as a fundamental of Americanism (rather than, say, the “Entrepreneurial Self Made Millionaire/Billionaire as with predecessor presidents and candidates).   Without the protests of Occupy, however, ones doubts that this would have been so and we can take this endorsement of middle-ized  “class” identified economics as proof that, against the systemic clout of oligarchs, the best tactic is still public demonstration.  And, at least some recognition of the economic relation between ceiling and floor has been put into the public record, some recognition that between floor and ceiling is living space best situated.

On the other hand, American was to be “a leader” in directing “fair” trade deals, on the environment and climate change, and would dictate the policies and behaviours of other nations by a continued declaration of some inalienable right to strike beyond its borders upon its own recognisance of danger. It is doubtful that it would have been possible for this president, especially, to have conducted a SOTU without re-affirming this unilateral “right”, just as no president can avoid calling upon “God” to confer “blessing” – so it is difficult to asses how sincerely Obama believes in the exceptionality of the US, although it is clear that it is a position he inhabits publically with vigour, to which many in that chamber are committed and of which they are convinced, and that Americans are constantly encouraged to believe. That many beyond US borders find a declaration of exceptionalism to be odious, to be an affront to the notion of a community of equal nations, does not seem to make a dint in the ideology: suck it up and accept the American Empire.  Like Pax Romana before it, this ideology contains the contradiction that, it is at one and the same time, acting in the best interests of the World, and in its Own, without the least public declaration of the irony, the impossibility of such as reality.

Yet, there is a striking contradiction between “middle class” and “exceptionalism” which will ultimately require that the US resolve by choosing between these poles of national understanding. The best reading is that the swing back toward acknowledging middleclassness indicates that the US might also be moving away from Empire toward joining the community of nations as peer, not as overlord.  But, the valourization of that exceptionalism belies such a reading.  Indeed, the rise of the doctrine of exceptionalism parallels the rise in the veneration of wealth and celebrity. Or, to be more accurate, these twin evils have haunted American history and experience from the beginning, ebbing and flowing, as they have repeatedly brought the country into calamity and from which it has struggled toward social and world responsibility.  What is clear is that that parallelism will function as a torc, if the one strong dynamic is moving in opposition to the other – ripping the country, and perhaps the world apart – if more reasonable resolutions cannot be achieved with a coherent commitment to egalitarianism, both at home and abroad.


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