The Use of Geography in the State of the Union Address

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President Barack Obama, in his final State of the Union (SOTU) address, revealed his goals for the final year of his presidency and additional ones that he hopes will be addressed in the near future following his departure from the White House. Like most of these addresses, he utilized geographical concepts from geopolitics and place identity to build the case for his plans. In about 6000 words, Obama developed a sense of place for America and addressed global changes as time and space are further compressed both by various technologies and changing ideals.

Early on, President Obama states that “we live in a time of extraordinary change” that affects “our place in the world”. Philosophers of geography have spent countless words investigating the meaning of “place” in this context, and this idea is a major theme running throughout the SOTU address. It is used mostly in the address to inquire about how the United States as a country interacts and is perceived on a global scale. This sentiment is present when Obama asks how to remain a global leader but not a global policeman, to remain safe but not isolated, and when he says that religious intolerance “diminishes” how people elsewhere view the United States and its people. The compression of time and space is equally present in the SOTU address. It is at play when Obama discusses outsourcing of jobs and companies moving abroad in a global economy with “less loyalty to their communities” and when he speaks on terrorism. He mentions that children in remote villages have better access to education while terrorists also are more capable of connecting and promoting their agendas on the Internet.

His idea for our country’s place in the world is best displayed when he muses that America’s global “leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right… seeing our foreign assistance as a part of our national security, not something separate, not charity”. That leadership also means cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energies. He stresses the need to work with the international community – and take a leading role – on issues like climate change, addressing diseases like Ebola, HIV, malaria, and cancer, and ending conflicts in order to prevent refugee crises and foster a more durable peace. President Obama also insists that the place of the United States in the world as a leader is stronger than that of other global powers because his Trans­Pacific Partnership ensures that the US has more command over east Asian trade than China – though he mentions this much later than his comments on job loss in a global market – and because the “people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead”.

Frequency of countries mentioned during President Obama's State of the Union addresses between 2009 and 2016. Map: Washington Post.

Frequency of countries mentioned during President Obama’s State of the Union addresses between 2009 and 2016. Map: Washington Post.

This SOTU address was not atypical in its use of geography. However, it does show its relevance in political discourse through space­time compression and the rapid diffusion of ideas and information and a sense and significance of place in international perceptions and foreign relations.