David Rothkopf

A State of the Union just like Beaver Cleaver’s mom used to make

President Barack Obama delivered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich of a speech tonight. It was dependable American fare, tasty to the average palette. It had some nutritional content but not too much. It was heavy on the sugar, but that was offset with a little crunchy practicality. It was remarkably unremarkable for a nation ...

President Barack Obama delivered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich of a speech tonight. It was dependable American fare, tasty to the average palette. It had some nutritional content but not too much. It was heavy on the sugar, but that was offset with a little crunchy practicality. It was remarkably unremarkable for a nation that has reeled from terrorist attack to war to financial calamity over the past decade. But in that vein, it will probably be widely embraced as the political comfort food it was intended to be.

Tonight's State of the Union speech was Barack Obama trying to channel Ronald Reagan trying to channel the Frank Capra spirit of America when it was a black and white movie with a cheesy score.

The core theme meant to evoke that spirit was the president's repeated urging that we "win the future." While this was uplifting and positive -- and untainted by the kind of tedious partisanship that marked Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's response, full of strident accusations and uninformative debt-cutting clichés -- the president's speech was nonetheless also vaguely unsettling. Because, of course, "winning" the future implies both that life is a competition and that consequently there must be both other parties who seek to defeat us and who we must defeat.

President Barack Obama delivered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich of a speech tonight. It was dependable American fare, tasty to the average palette. It had some nutritional content but not too much. It was heavy on the sugar, but that was offset with a little crunchy practicality. It was remarkably unremarkable for a nation that has reeled from terrorist attack to war to financial calamity over the past decade. But in that vein, it will probably be widely embraced as the political comfort food it was intended to be.

Tonight’s State of the Union speech was Barack Obama trying to channel Ronald Reagan trying to channel the Frank Capra spirit of America when it was a black and white movie with a cheesy score.

The core theme meant to evoke that spirit was the president’s repeated urging that we "win the future." While this was uplifting and positive — and untainted by the kind of tedious partisanship that marked Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s response, full of strident accusations and uninformative debt-cutting clichés — the president’s speech was nonetheless also vaguely unsettling. Because, of course, "winning" the future implies both that life is a competition and that consequently there must be both other parties who seek to defeat us and who we must defeat.

As such, while the president made reference to Gaby Giffords "empty chair," there was clearly an even more important absent player looming over the event: China. This was perhaps the first State of the Union that was as much about them as it was about us. While it was on the surface an optimistic speech, "winning the future" nonetheless offered both a goal and a threat, an aspiration and an enemy.   

Could the president have promoted American growth and better lives in the future without implying that we live in a zero sum world full of actors who are working hard to defeat us? Yes. But he didn’t. More than once during the speech, he went further and cited gains being made by the Chinese as if to goad us, as if to say either we step up our game or they will eat our lunch.

Not that peanut butter and jelly is likely to be very appetizing to them. Especially since this jingoistic self-love sandwich was — in the name of civility — prepared as blandly as possible. On the one hand there was no mention of gun control.  Big controversial ideas were sidestepped. And one couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between the "sputnik moment" imagery of America once rising to a great challenge and the fact that adventures like space exploration are precisely the kind of thing that a prudent, middle-aged, more austere America just doesn’t do anymore. It was a speech about economic nuts and bolts, about getting our act to together, about being responsible, about government reorganization, about shop clerk and bean-counter innovation. It was ultimately uplifting without being inspirational.

The president delivered America a big PB&J tonight. It was unobjectionable, comforting, familiar, and it will carry us through until roughly tomorrow, but not much further. At that point, the simple flavors will fade and, I think, in retrospect the whole thing is going to leave us feeling a little empty inside and hungry for something much more substantial, something that is going to be a lot more challenging to prepare given just how many chefs it will require.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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