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Obama's mercantilist State of the Union address

Like other wonks, I watched last night's State of the Union address with a mixture of curiosity and whiskey. As I noted a few days ago, each State of the Union address contains some statements that history will judge rather harshly. Initially that was my focus in listening to last night's speech. That was quickly supplanted by a more interesting undercurrent to Obama's text, however. 

Foreign policy wonks like Fred Kaplan have argued that there wasn't much foreign policy content in the speech. That's true only if one has a rather narrow definition of foreign policy. What was striking to me was Obama's global justifications for a lot of his economic policy. Throughout his speech, he used the specter of foreign economic threats to prod Congress into action.  Consider the following: 

Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs?....

After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three. Caterpillar is bringing jobs back from Japan. Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico. After locating plants in other countries like China, Intel is opening its most advanced plant right here at home. And this year, Apple will start making Macs in America again.

There are things we can do, right now, to accelerate this trend....

After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years....

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.....

America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs....

Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job....

In each of these passages, Obama was using comparative language to contrast the United States with other countries -- or, as he would put it, other magnets for jobs. The explicit thesis is that unless the United States makes the necessary investments, scarce jobs will leave American shores. 

Obama has used this kind of rhetoric on the campaign trail and in previous SOTUs. It reveals a somewhat mercantiilist worldview, one in which jobs and economic growth have a zero-sum, relative gains quality to it. 

[So, what, Dan? Most Americans see the world through a mercantilist lens as well. Will this kind of rhetoric matter?--ed.] I'm honestly not sure. Here's the foreign economic policy component of the SOTU:

Even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not only dangers, but opportunities. To boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union – because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.

Now on the one hand, announcing the formal start of negotiations with the EU on a trade deal augurs well for my prediction last year about foreign economic policy playing a big role in Obama's second term. On the other hand, viewing trade through a mercantilist lens will make tough negotiations even tougher ... which means I might owe Phil Levy an expensive DC dinner.

In a speech in which traditional security threats seemed very much on the wane in terms of actual threat as well as political salience, it would be a cruel twist of fate to ratchet up ill-conceived foreign economic threats as a substitute. 

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