It may not be much solace to Americans struggling with long-term unemployment and income inequality, but President Obama had a point when he declared in his State of the Union speech that "after five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth."
Many economists say the United States is not just recovering, at long last, from the devastating blows to U.S. power and prestige delivered by a self-inflicted recession, but that America is also back to winning, once again, the global economic sweepstakes. While U.S. growth is not especially strong and unemployment is still 6.7 percent, others are faltering even more at the moment. China has slowed (to a historically slow 7.7 percent GDP growth), and is sinking further; it may also face a banking crisis. Above all, China appears unready to embrace the social and political change that will transform it into a next-level innovative economy. Market traders aren't touting the up-and-coming "BRIC" nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) these days; instead they're fretting about the undependable currencies of the "Fragile Five" (Brazil, Indonesia, India, Turkey, and South Africa). Europe is picking up, but remains in an existential funk over the future of the Eurozone, and its debt-laden banks are still dragging, with several times more lending exposure to the unsteady Fragile Five economies.
Now, seeking to exploit what Obama hopefully called a "breakthrough year for America," the administration is touting its new economic leverage in world affairs as part of an across-the-board strategy. At a senior-staff meeting held on Jan. 7 to discuss his 2014 agenda, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that "economics is the centerpiece of U.S. diplomacy" and said he wanted U.S. diplomats to know that "everybody has got to be an economics officer." Kerry believes the U.S. is punching under its weight in economic affairs, and he is looking for "ways to leverage our economic strength," a senior State department official told National Journal. The secretary of State has made a point of working closely with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on promoting U.S. entrepreneurship and trade policy.
As Obama indicated in his speech, the administration is also actively seeking to enlist a business community that remains somewhat leery of him. As part of his outreach, Obama not only brought in Pritzker, a real estate tycoon, as commerce secretary but nominated Cathy Novelli, Apple's former vice president of government affairs, as undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy, and the environment; as well as Charles Rivkin, who before he became ambassador to France was a Hollywood entertainment executive, as assistant secretary of State for economic affairs.
Politically, the question is whether a less-than-inspiring talking point—sure, most Americans don't feel great about America right now, but we should feel better than everyone else!—can be a path to Democratic electoral success in 2016. Touting America as No. 1 probably won't do much to rally the Democratic base, especially since a central part of the administration's strategy is to push hard for free-trade agreements with Europe and Asia that may only heighten income inequality at home. Liberals are already suspicious of Obama's centrism and are somewhat concerned that the party's potential standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, may be more inclined to follow her husband's moderate, Democratic Leadership Council-led path than go progressive. (Nonetheless, Bill Clinton's appeals to globalization during the faster-growth '90s were the basis of two successful presidential campaigns.)
In the end, Obama's quixotic call to American businesses to "join us" and "do what you can to raise your employees' wages" will probably make as little headway as the president's ceaseless appeals to the Republican-led House. "The reason businesses are not hiring or raising wages is not because they're acting badly and hating America. It's because they're not seeing enough demand for their stuff," says economist Heidi Shierholz of the progressive Economic Policy Institute.
Still, when Bob Dylan is out selling Chrysler during the Super Bowl, perhaps the times are a changin' more than the party's liberal faction realizes. In an odd juxtaposition, Obama is combining his free-trade agenda with a sort of neo-protectionist "buy American" rhetoric that pleases progressives and unions. If economic growth continues to pick up over the next two years, that could put the Democratic nominee in a better position than expected in 2016. In his State of the Union, Obama declared to cheers that "for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world's No. 1 place to invest; America is." By at least one measure, an A.T. Kearney study, he's right.
If the president continues to be right—and if he succeeds in getting that message out—the economic story could start looking a lot more favorable for Democrats.