Yesterday, President Obama delivered his long-awaited State of the Union address. I dare say, prior to that speech, the president was under more pressure than during most of his campaign. A State of the Union address so soon after his inauguration meant nothing short of a Roadmap to Obama's second term was due to be presented -- and a solution to the difficult situation in Congress which still might block most initiatives by the Democrats.
By quoting John F. Kennedy's "the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress," Obama gave a red line to his speech -- the need and the wish for compromise and alliances.
As Member of the European Parliament, this is something I know about. Maybe thanks to the lack of "government" and "opposition" at the European Parliament, we have to look for alliances and compromise daily, on a case-by-case basis. This is, certainly, not easy, but -- just as President Obama put it -- "reasonable compromise" is the only way to make our common project "Europe" work. I guess Obama wanted to give this feeling to the Members of Congress, too. The wish for cooperation shone through much of his moving speech.
In Europe, politics -- and politicians -- tend to be a bit more "sober" or plain, but I think, especially the reference to the union only moving forward when doing so together, and the responsibility of improving the union being a task of all, was something that could have also been addressed at European politicians, especially in these times of ongoing budget negotiations.
Still, despite many remarkable announcements in internal politics, such as weapon legislation or health care, we cannot deny that most interest of European onlookers lay in possible references to his future steps with regard to climate protection. Whether or not those expectations were met, depends on how far going they were in the first place. No, President Obama did not -- yet -- announce concrete steps or declared his willingness to come back to the UN negotiation table, but we have to put this in into perspective: This speech was an address to the American nation, it was a "state of the nation" address in its own right. This is why most of the speech dealt with America's fight against the crisis, the recovery from recession and a way to the future. Still, Obama went full circle moved away from crisis and debt problems. He also addressed the need to support innovation and tackle the energy challenge. And while his first remarks on a more energy-independent USA "speeding up new oil and gas permits" made many observers in Europe revoke their optimism, with new shale gas extraction and oil drillings in Alaska and other nature reserves being hugely controversial, soon afterwards, Obama spoke -- after years with no official U.S. emissary even saying that word -- about carbon emissions that had fallen.
Certainly, those decreasing emissions surely are not results of U.S. action on climate protection, but are more linked to reduced industrial activity due to recession, but they gave Obama the entry he needed. Just as he did in his inaugural address, he again made a statement on the adverse weather effects already visible, and the need to act before it is too late. This made me optimistic -- as did his phrase: "... for the sake of our climate and our future, we must to more to combat climate change." Yes, Obama did not say how the U.S. should act -- whether on an international basis, through a forum such as the UN, or alone -- but he gave two examples.
The first concrete reference to action in climate protection was a strong demand to Congress, saying basically: "either you pass climate laws or I will." This is the strong president we were hoping for and we will take him at these words -- because the U.S. president can act alone -- if needed. He has the executive powers to take immediate action, for example through the Environmental Protection Agency.
Still, we should not think that this is a major turnaround in U.S. position. As I have said before, the U.S. will not act because of morals, but because of a strong interest in a vital economy. We have to see this reference to climate change in the broader context of this speech: The U.S. wants to finally overcome recession and thrive again. The reference to China being "all in on clean energy" is very important here. Climate protection may be important for saving the planet, but it is just as well one of the best job motors to awake the sometimes languishing U.S. industry. And this should be a wakeup call for Europe, too.
Obama's second example of action made that even clearer: The reference to the housing sector and the concrete goal to cut in half the energy wasted through houses and business in the next 20 years is a sure indicator that -- through government incentives -- climate protection and energy efficiency regulations shall help American industry to recover. I am very pleased to see that President Obama is now walking down that road, for this is the message Europe tried to deliver for years: Climate protection is a business case! Ironically enough, just at the moment when the US seem to have understood, many of my European colleagues seem to doubt. So perhaps we should listen to each other more attentively in the future...
Last but not least, as a German, I would like to thank President Obama for -- not once but twice -- citing Germany -- once with regard to Siemens, German leader in efficient technologies, and then also with regard to our education system. It is good to see -- especially in an election year -- that the German strategy of austerity and sustainable growth remains not unnoticed after all.
Visit Karl-Heinz Florenz on Facebook