Good enough for kites, but not for the State of the Union.

Photographer: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

Obama Disses His Indian Hosts

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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Bemoaning the president's failure to mention a subject or country in the State of the Union address is an old Washington parlor game. And as an ex-presidential speechwriter, I know how easy it is for something or somewhere to end up on the cutting-room floor.

That said, President Barack Obama's omission of India last night was a blunder, and not just because it might offend some of the more than 1 billion citizens of a country he's about to visit. He missed an opportunity to highlight for Americans, who might otherwise not pay much attention to his trip, why the emerging U.S. partnership with India is so important. 

Take three issues that played prominently in the speech: terrorism, trade and climate change.

India has an important role to play in Afghanistan and vis-à-vis Pakistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also made clear that India and the U.S. have a shared interest in curbing instability in West Asia -- think Iraq, Syria and the so-called Islamic State. Not only was there no mention of this budding cooperation, but some Indians also probably weren't warmed by Obama's reference to Pakistani victims of terrorism, given India's own suffering at the hands of Pakistan-abetted terrorists.

Obama talked a lot about writing "the rules of trade" and free and fair deals "to level the playing field." Let's remember that India only recently agreed to stop holding up negotiations at the World Trade Organization, and that U.S. companies seeking to do business with India face high tariff barriers, investment caps and weak intellectual property rights. It wouldn't have been hard to flag those issues in a politic way that stressed the mutual benefits of resolving such disputes.

Finally, as the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, India will need to play a critical role in meeting what Obama called the greatest threat to future generations, one that poses "immediate risks to our national security." Achieving a climate deal in Delhi would be one big way to help clear the air.

All it would have taken is a neat few sentences that put Obama's trip in the context of his generally sensible goals. In fact, I can't resist noting that they would have fit perfectly in his paragraph beginning "In the Asia-Pacific…"

But instead, not only did Obama blow a chance to butter up his hosts (and the more than 3 million Indian-Americans), he set himself up for this double-whammy by Julie Pace of the Associated Press:

"He's going to India basically for a parade and a visit to the Taj Mahal," she said on CNN before the speech.

"Think about the timing of this," she continued. "The president is going to India three days after his State of the Union address. A period of time when he normally would be out trying to rally Congress and the public behind his agenda. I think this says all you need to know about the likelihood that anything he announces on Tuesday actually gets done."

Ouch! Among other benefits, the nascent U.S.-India partnership actually could help Obama to advance important goals such as trade promotion authority and immigration reform. But that relationship won't flourish unless Obama is willing to sell it at home as much as abroad.  Last night, he missed a chance to do both.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net