At first glance, the verbal showdown between President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address and the Republican response by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers was an unfair fight. Traditionally, this day belongs to the president. Flanked by the Vice President and the Speaker of the House, President Obama addressed the full Congress, Supreme Court justices, and members of his Cabinet, and was repeatedly interruped by standing ovations. By contrast, the Republican congresswoman delivered her party’s rebuttal before a camera in her office. The contrast was reminiscent of that warm summer evening in 2008, when then-Senator and Democratic front-runner Barack Obama managed to excite a quarter of a million Germans in Berlin. That same week still-Senator and then-Republican frontrunner John McCain was caught on film awkwardly addressing a crowd of two that he had seemingly ambushed in a grocery store aisle somewhere in the heartland.
Now into his fifth year in office, despite the pomp and circumstance, the president’s address was a far cry from his promising bravado of 2008. While he was unapologetic about the bungled roll-out of his signature health care law, his speech clearly marks a shift away from sweeping reforms to a much more modest agenda. With Congress stuck in partisan gridlock, the president is willing to go it alone using executive power on issues concerning energy, the economy, education, and the environment—one small step at a time. Frustrated as he may be, though, he shied away from overtly divisive political language. Fortunately, the Republican reply, too, struck a few conciliatory tones. Maybe, just maybe, both camps will get around to working together, at a moment when the nation—as polls suggest—seems to have given up on Washington altogether.
So what was in the speech for Europe? It contained two surprising nuggets that may appeal to European ears in particular. Sure, the speech included a sentence lauding the alliance with Europe as the most successful in history. No surprise there. It’s a political evergreen, a transatlantic classic. Unfortunately, Obama passed up the opportunity—again—to underscore his support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), poised to breathe new life into this at-times stale relationship. More encouragingly, the president openly conceded that the effectiveness of the intelligence services’ War on Terror is dependent not only on public support at home, but also abroad. This keeps the door open for more transparency and oversight over NSA snooping, which continues to unsettle Europeans in particular.
But those are not the surprises I alluded to. Obama called for two changes that would bring the United States more in line with so-called European “socialism.” First, he urged Congress to strengthen women’s rights, stating “It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.” In particular, his appeal for equal pay for equal work drew loud applause, causing some female lawmakers to beam and high-five, and his appeal for more generous family leave policies was met with applause. The “Mad Men” comment brought him a big laugh, suggesting that the audience took his point. In light of the nation’s current economic troubles and political division, the second nugget was even more surprising. It was … wait for it, wait for it … income inequality. With the two parties not seeing eye-to-eye on most issues these days, it remains the president’s secret how he plans to ease the stress on the middle class. As much as his words may resonate with Americans and Europeans alike, he cannot fix this problem by himself. It will require both sides to step up to the edge of the political gulf between them, reach across the aisle, and actually work together constructively and with mutual respect. If they manage, Washington will not only fix itself, but also repair some of the damage to its reputation with Europeans, which was heavily tarnished during the self-inflicted government shutdown in the fall. However, if the recent budget compromise is any indicator, there may be reason to hope that together both parties dig themselves out of the political hole they are currently in.
Prior to relocating to the United States in September 2013, Uli Finkenbusch was the foreign policy adviser to the Free Democratic Party caucus in the German Bundestag. He now works as an independent consultant in the Washington, DC area. This article reflects his personal views.