Barack Obama and Nikki Haley: Part I – The State of the Union

Barack Obama and Nikki Haley: Part I The State of the Union


Howard Adelman

As brilliant as Obama’s State of the Union address was, the highlight of my evening listening to Obama was the response to that address by the Republican South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley.

There were a number of parts to her response; they follow, though not in the order in which they were presented:

  1. Like virtually every American politician, including Obama, but with the possible exception of Bernie Saunders, she pontificated about America as the “last, best hope on earth.”
  2. Like Obama, she offered a vision of hope rather than the politics of fear.
  3. She complimented Obama, though, in part, it was backhanded, for three things: a)eloquence; b) the historical importance of his election; c) his ability to inspire;
  4. She supported immigration
  1. as a daughter of Indian immigrants with a history of tough times, “no one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country,” though, of course, migrants cannot be permitted to come illegally;
  2. she insisted that we resist the temptation to follow the siren call of the angriest voices and derided the tendency to equate noise with results;
  3. She welcomed properly vetted immigrants regardless of race or religion, calling for respecting differences, and, perhaps on this one issue, paid a glancing reference to the clerk who would not issue a marriage licence, also called for respecting “religious liberty”;
  1. She made reference to the Emmanuel Church killings noting how those gathered in prayer welcomed a stranger with love and asked him to pray with them, only to be greeted an hour later with gunfire, killing nine of the congregants – to which South Carolinans, in the spirit of the Congregants themselves, responded with vigils not violence, hugs rather than riots, a spirit which led the South Carolina government to finally take down a symbol of divisiveness, the Confederate flag.

Haley was at one with Obama when he rejected “any politics that targets people because of race or religion…The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith” and not the voices that urged Americans “to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.”

These were the unanticipated love-in parts that predominated in her speech and proved to be so complementary to Obama’s message of hope. Intermixed were her critiques of Obama’s policies and performance.

  1. She listed her strong disagreements on policy and advocated:
  1. lower taxes;
  2. brakes on runaway spending;
  3. brakes on debt;
  4. encouraging innovation and success;
  5. reform of education to benefit students and parents versus Washington bureaucrats & union bosses;
  6. an end to Obama’s disastrous health program – arguing for lower costs and patients actually being able to keep their doctor;
  7. defended the 2nd and 10th amendment;
  8. international agreements into which the United States entered should be celebrated in Israel rather than in Iran;
  9. strengthening the military so when we fight wars we win them; She then criticized Obama for his alleged failure to match his deeds to his words:
  1. an economy too weak to raise income levels;
  2. the crushing national debt;
  3. a health plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available;
  4. chaotic unrest in many of America’s cities;
  5. the U.S. is facing the most dangerous terrorist threat since 911; She criticized Washington more generally;
  1. because America was frustrated with Washington in general as all talk and no action;
  2. insisted that Democrats were not alone responsible but there was plenty of blame to go around;

She explicitly said:

“We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken. And then we need to fix it.”

Haley was overtly calling for a change from the politics of divisiveness, to the politics of hope, with which Obama had become so identified. Like Obama, she called for a better politics. In his State of the Union speech, Obama said, “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything…Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of the government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.” Democracy, he insisted, requires “basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”

It was on this issue that Obama admitted failure. Though he vowed to keep trying, he had failed to bridge the divide and overcome the feelings among a wide swath of Americans who felt their voice did not matter and that the system was rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and certain narrow interests. One could manipulate those feelings and feed the politics of distrust and divisiveness, or address them with a politics of civility.

For Obama, structural issues lay at the root of the new politics of divisiveness that he called on the American people, and not just the president and/or Congress to address. “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around, We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections – and if our existing approach to campaign financing can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution. We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now.”

Though Haley avoided pointing to any systemic structural issues beneath the politics of divisiveness, she exemplified the politics of civility and called for and refocused on the policies and different views of performance that divided Democrats and Republicans with respect to:

  1. economic policy;
  2. health policy;
  3. training and education policy to encourage innovation;
  4. domestic security and gun control;
  5. national security and foreign policy;
  6. a new approach to cooperation versus divisiveness on policy.

Haley’s response was certainly succinct and packed, especially given the much shorter time she was allocated. So I would urge listening to her message and focus on substance more than style, on the validity of her criticisms of policy and execution rather than her criticisms of Donald Trump and her praise of Barack Obama, both explicitly and by way of imitation. In that way, we too can contribute to restoring to politics the character of civilized disputes on policy issues.

Over the next few days, I will explore those differences in policies and performance between Democrats and Republicans.

With the help of Alex Zisman




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