Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Blog

By Mehrunisa Qayyum, Founder of PITAPOLICY @Pitapolicy

In DC, watching the State of the Union at a Happy Hour or viewing party is an event--especially when we note who the cameraman focuses on while the president assesses the state of our nation.

Twitter is an addiction. I have started to think about talking points with hashtags placed before them. Merge this addiction with some great guacamole and chips with a cold Coca-Cola, and I will happily not keep my opinions to myself.

Yet, I have no catchphrases from the State of the Union regarding the Middle East & North Africa region after an uneventful viewing at the Arab American Institute. Counting the number of times certain phrases or words the President uses triggers more than just cute drinking games. President Obama did not expound upon Iran’s decision to continue to enrich uranium. This is a sharp contrast from the number of times “nuclear” popped up during President Bush’s State of the Union address days. Instead, triggers that usually regain my attention, were barely uttered once: Osama, Taliban, Iraq, Afghanistan x 4, #iran, Al Qaeda, Middle East, #Cairo, Sanaa, Tripoli, Gaddafi, North Africa, and Assad. These are key words that influence my daily occupation and crop up in my twitter factoids. Specifically, President Obama acknowledged the Arab Awakening and recognized those countries in a positive light (Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia).

Obama’s SOTU was simple. However, noting what was not said, presents a theme. I was prepared to hear at least 10 minutes of consecutive commentary on the Arab Awakening or the Iranian threat to block oil. I can take the good with the bad. I was even prepared to hear a long tribute on the Iranian threat to block oil.

The good news: no such commentary emerged. No longer can certain fears preoccupy American hearts and minds. Perhaps Americans of Middle Eastern, Muslim, or South Asian descent are comforted by that. However, the central theme of the economy and how to rebuild before another election divides us, might just as easily dissipate this relief. Despite the more domestic focus, the @AAIUSA account received many replies and retweets. But I should not be surprised since AAIUSA advocates for domestic interests.

The bad news: there were more serious problems to discuss. The State of the Union (#SOTU) focused exclusively on the socio-economic affairs of the US. It would have been fitting to tie in American oil fears with an overseas fear. Yet, maybe that was the point: to stop obsessing about outside threats as our own troubles are brewing at home: 1) public education needs to improve, 2) rising university tuitions are hurting the middle class, 3) health care is still expensive, and 4) bigger businesses must remain mindful of the environmental waste and innovation for the twenty-first century.

Yet, some may argue that Obama’s SOTU speech skipped heavy foreign policy references because of campaign positioning and strategy: the GOP has already honed in on the foreign policy challenges in their 18 primary debates. In particular, leading candidates, like Newt Gingrich and Richard Santorum, selected Iran as a favorite foreign policy topic to galvanize American hearts and minds. Thus, why should Obama share a counterpoint in his SOTU that will be formally ripped apart for the remaining campaign season?

Whether downplaying foreign policy reflected Obama’s campaign strategy, or presidential agenda, I would argue: it does not matter because it was probably a little of both. What is more striking, and probably more inspiring, is that hearing/viewing what others outside of the US thought about the SOTU. Through an initiative by PBS News, innovative software and tools allowed anyone to translate the SOTU into other languages and share with their communities. Known as “crowdsourcing”, non-English speakers may select the language they may hear the speech in real time and then translate in an online community forum. As a result, non-native English speakers will view American leaders’ speeches in their native languages.

Given this newer technology, which levels the “pundit-field”, I cannot wait for the actual presidential debates when President Obama’s opponent decides to debate foreign policy. The comments on the Arab Awakening, Syria, or Iran’s power struggle will hardly get lost in translation with “crowdsourcing.” I look forward to seeing how this all translates after a tame SOTU address.

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