The Common Good

Obama's Global Challenge: Healthy Competition or Unhealthy Nationalism?

Another State of the Union has come and gone. The kingdom of God did not come with it, and the sky did not fall. The address last night was more important than many people across the country realize, and significantly less important than many people in Washington, D.C. realize.

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Why is it important? There is, of course, the political and policy agenda that it set forth. Many others more qualified than myself will parse out the good, the bad, and the ugly on those points. But there is also the symbolic and social power a speech of this importance holds. A few things last night stuck out in this area.

Many pointed out that the act of different legislators sitting together was largely symbolic. There was not a legislative accomplishment that resulted from that act last night. But, just from watching the TV, the feel of the chamber was different. There were fewer standing ovations during this speech. Applause was, of course, withheld or emphatically given for certain issues but standing ovations were fewer and focused on areas of agreement. When you are sitting next to someone with whom you know you disagree, you are going to pick your applause lines with a little more care.

According to a post-election poll by Public Religion Research Institute, only one in five Americans think our politicians do a good job working together to get things done. Two-thirds responded that they see people in their communities working well together, even with those they disagree, to get things done. It certainly isn't necessary, but it is entirely possible, that the symbol was the first step for our legislators.

Words are important too. The values and priorities they communicate matter as to how people perceive themselves and the country. Today, in classrooms across the nation, teachers will be quoting President Obama's speech last night when they tell their students, "It's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair." I do not doubt what President Obama said about education last night will inspire not only students, but also teachers to achieve more. That's a good thing.

But the power of words is also what raises concern for me about last night's speech. This president came into office to great international acclaim. He won a Nobel Peace Prize before he had gotten a chance to catch his breath. Last night the president called for a "new era of cooperation," -- domestically. Then he called for a new era of competition internationally.

"We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business."

China and India became the symbols of danger and concern. Not only have they been taking our jobs but the president pointed out: "Just recently, China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer." It was an "us vs. them" message that somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose, and to the winners go all the spoils.

I am not naïve as to the importance of global competitiveness, and I do agree that I would like this country to excel in education, technology, infrastructure, long-term fiscal responsibility, and efficiency of government. But difficult economic times can bring out the best in people and the worst. It can bring a community together or tear it apart as neighbors fight for limited resources. It can inspire us to do more together or turn potential partners into enemies. The desire to "win" globally has led to anti-immigrant backlashes and unhealthy protectionism and nationalism.

Words and symbols matter. That's why we should all be careful about what we say, especially the president.

Tim King is communications manager and special assistant to the CEO at Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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