When journalists from around the world report on a speech by a sitting US president – such as President Obama’s state of the union speech last night – they do so with their own particular reading public in mind. The effect, for a global reader, can be confusing. Did Mr. Obama really say all of this in one speech?
For Chinese readers, Obama is reported to have boasted that the US is not, repeat not, declining.
For Indian readers, Obama promised to take on China and other nations that were engaged in theft of US intellectual property.
For the French, Obama was announcing his roadmap for reelection, while for the British he gave a populist speech promising a fairer America.
From a closer reading of his one hour and six minute speech, Mr. Obama does appear to have said all of these things, and a few more. But the fact that the press in each country has its own idea of what is newsworthy in a state of the union should not be surprising. It speaks volumes about how US foreign and economic policy affects that country, for better or worse.
China’s interest in America’s future makes sense. China is the US’s second-largest trading partner, and America’s ability to kickstart its economy is crucial for China’s own prosperity. US economic weakness is bad for Chinese business.
Small wonder, then, that the China Daily – Beijing’s main English-language newspaper – focused its attention on Obama’s confident statement, “The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe."
"Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about," he said in his prime-time address.
Indian papers, meanwhile, saw in Obama’s tough words against intellectual piracy a reflection of its own rivalry with China. Both India and China have emerged as new economic and manufacturing bases, as more established economic powers in Europe and the America’s have slowed down. Both India and China have been competing for business and for resources in Africa, and both see themselves as the voice of the world’s impoverished, symbolized in their membership in the BRICS group of new economic powers (including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
But for India and China, power is a zero-sum game, and India revels in any sign of trouble for China.
That’s why an Indian newspaper like the Hindustan Times focuses on the China section of Obama’s speech:
"I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products," [Obama] said. "And I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules. We've brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration -- and it's made a difference."
"It's not right when another country lets our movies, music, and software be pirated. It's not fair when foreign manufacturers have a leg up on ours only because they're heavily subsidized."
In South Africa, where the two main parties seem to have given up on speaking with each other, and instead bellow at their own constituencies, newspapers focused on the partisan divide in the US. The New Age, a newspaper that is openly close with the ruling African National Congress, headlined their story "Feisty Obama speech gets icy Republican reception."
For French papers, US political rhetoric is a mystery that must be studied for hidden meanings. Like Rene Magritte’s painting of a pipe, entitled “This is not a pipe,” American political promises are statements that must be seen as more than they appear to be.
The Paris-based newspaper, Le Monde, is perhaps the most straightforward, in an article entitled “Barack Obama presents the roadmap for reelection.”
Faced with a Congress, where his Republican opponents are in a strong position, and nine months to seek a second term, Obama assured Americans that the U.S. was “getting stronger,” and he wanted to present plans for "…an economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded."
British papers saw reflections of their own social and economic struggles, with the left-leaning Guardian focusing on Obama’s description of a country “where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” and the more conservative Telegraph highlighted the swift and negative reaction of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who said, “A government as big and bossy as this one is maintained on the backs of the middle class, and those who hope to join it.”
The Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, focused on the portion of Obama’s speech dealing with the Middle East. America’s “ironclad commitment to Israel's security has meant the closest cooperation between our countries in history," the Post quoted Obama as saying. As for Iran, the Post noted that Obama still felt negotiation with the Ahmedinejad government was still worthwhile, but pointed out that Obama had added he would take "no options off the table" in ensuring the Iran does not create or receive nuclear weapons.