Audacity of hope

US president Barack Obama’s State of the Union address will evoke a flicker hope worldwide. For the first time since he became president in 2009, Obama renewed pledges made during the election campaign ahead of his first presidency.  He spoke of the need to shift the US away from a ‘permanent war footing’ mode and announced plans to close down the infamous prison at Guantanamo Bay in a year.

These were among the promises that had endeared Obama to Americans and people across the world, who saw in him hope for a new America, one that was different from the war-mongering country that the US had become under George Bush. But once elected, Obama dragged his feet on shutting down the Guantanamo facility. Obama’s acceleration of the military operations in Afghanistan as well as the US’ role in fuelling civil wars in Libya, Syria, etc indicated he was no less bellicose than his predecessors. It is in this context that his State of the Union address evokes optimism. For the first time since he became president he has announced a deadline for closing the Guantanamo prison. While his reaffirmation of old pledges raises hope, there is concern that these could be mere platitudes. Or does Obama mean business this time around?  He has promised to veto any attempt by the US Congress to impose fresh sanctions on Iran. If he does so, it will be confirmation that he is indeed committed to diplomacy and dialogue and to shifting US policy away from its long-standing confrontationist, ‘permanent war footing’ approach.

Obama’s critics have denounced his speech for not laying out a grand vision of the US’ global role. They have accused him of ‘retreating,’ of dragging the US back to an isolationist era and so on. This is an incorrect reading of his address. Nowhere in his speech did he speak of a diminished US engagement with the world. What he has clarified however is a different approach.

On the domestic front, Obama has promised to tackle economic inequality, appealing to Congress to approve an increase in the national minimum wage among other things. He has stressed that he will not be hemmed in by an obstructionist Congress. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Obama galvanised millions by promising them change. But sadly, these promises remained unfulfilled once he entered the White House. His State of the Union address suggests he intends resetting his priorities. He must do so immediately; he is running out of time.

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