The president of the United States is required by law to give an annual presentation to the Congress on the status of the country. President Obama carried out this duty for the last time this week with his formal State of the Union address. What makes the speech extraordinary is not its contents – the world will little remember what he said – but the divergence in perceptions about the country’s situation.
“Rosy outlook by Obama clashes with Republicans’ gloom” headlined the International New York Times. From Obama’s “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” to his “all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air…so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker,” show the level of his optimism and his attitude towards the dissenters. U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Suzan G. LeVine gave an equally upbeat interview to Darius Rochebin on Swiss television in spite of his prodding about Obama’s low popularity ratings and hints at disappointment. She resolutely stood by her man.
Obama described a country that remains the most powerful on earth, one that has created over 14 million jobs since 2010, has given better health care benefits to 17 million more Americans, has resuscitated the auto industry, and has seen the United States eliminate the top leadership of Al Qaeda with “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
Among those “peddling fiction,” Patrick Martin headlines his response to the president’s speech with “Obama’s Final State of the Union: Lies, Evasions and Threats.” Martin’s major grief is over the situation of tens of millions of working people in America. In his state of the union article, Martin went point by point through the speech, pointing to how the economic “’recovery’ has been a bonanza for corporate profits, stock prices, and the wealth and income of the super-rich. For the working people who are the vast majority of the population, it has been a disaster.” Martin cites the fact that “In the seven years since the financial crash…not a single banker or speculator has been prosecuted or jailed. On the contrary, the billionaires have greatly increased their wealth, gobbling up 95 percent of all new income since Obama entered the White House.” As for foreign policy, Martin says: “Obama indulged in the glorification of killing that has become an essential part of the degraded spectacle that passes for political discourse in America.”
The Republican candidates for president have been equally brutal in their assessment of the state of the union.
Who are we to believe? How are we to decide? It is obvious that those who have become richer during the last seven years will favor the president, as will those who have gained insurance through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare for short). Those who are still unemployed, recently unemployed or who have seen their purchasing power diminished will favor the gloomy scenario. Moreover, Republicans are saying that Americans are not pleased with Obama’s foreign policy. “It’s increasingly clear the anxiety voters fear is not just economic,” according to a Republican strategist. “They are concerned with what they perceive as a weakened America on the world stage. They believe that even if America was leading, the rest of the world would not follow us. Obama’s actions on Iran, Syria and Russia have done nothing to assuage that fear,” he added.
Whom to believe? How to decide? The simplest answer is to go to one of the sites which check the facts. Objectively, rational people will select the story that closest corresponds to the truth. Another determining factor will be the upcoming election. If the majority of people vote for a candidate following Obama’s narrative, that will show that they believe his perception. If the Republican candidate wins, the gloomy picture will prevail. For the moment, Mr. Obama’s popularity ranking is under 50%, showing that most people do not accept his rosy picture of what he has done and his positive state of the nation. Finally, historians will decide sometime in the future. What might appear one way today may look very different later on. Perceptions evolve over time.
Is the truth a question of perception? Is there no Truth? The diametrically opposed reactions to President Obama’s State of the Union highlight the relativity of perceptions. Perhaps Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in physics also applies to politics. We see and hear what we want to see and hear; we believe those people and/or facts which coincide with our world visions. No truth checks will change those beliefs. In this sense, politics, like religion, is merely a question of faith. After seven years, Barack Obama’s audacity of hope to transform America has been transformed into an audacity to believe. Politics has become relative; it all depends on your perspective.