It's time for Americans and our politicians to seek unity for the sake of the nation, and "instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward." That was the theme of President Barack Obama's second State of the Union address that he delivered to the nation tonight. More than once he used the phrase "move forward," appealing to Democratic and Republican Party legislators to work together, and finally, invoking the American Dream, he relayed a stream of images designed to inspire striving for our ideals.
He delivered his message with the recent Arizona shootings hanging in the air as psychic backdrop. That recent tragedy has caused America to examine what some may call a vociferous polarization poisoning American politics. In the opening of his speech, he mentioned Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by name, who was shot that day but is recovering, and he referenced Christina-Taylor Green, the nine-year-old who died.
The opening's key passage:
But there's a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater -- something more consequential than party or political preference.
We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.
That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.
You may read the speech's text here.
The president needed to strike this healing note in his message; not only does America mourn six lives, but also concerns have arisen since the Arizona incident about negative uses of rhetoric in American political debate.
The mood in tonight's chamber was very different, some newscasters observed, from the fractious atmosphere of some of Obama's earlier speeches since he's taken office, most notably the time when South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson yelled "You lie" during Obama's 2009 health care reform speech.
Some legislators have been so conscious of salvaging the American image of a working government practicing democracy with civility that they opted to sit next to their opposition for this State of the Union address. That's all good, but Obama also said, "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."
As would be expected, the president said early in his speech that the "recession is over" and his solutions have resulted in "more than one million private sector jobs created last year." That is a statement with which his opponents disagree.
And then he went for the hard stuff, the part most Americans probably tuned in to hear, his plans for the nation's economic future. Building to his point that he plans to revitalize the economy through investment in research, pursuing clean energy, and reforming education, the president reminded his audience of how much America has achieved through creativity, resourcefulness, the entrepreneurial spirit, and often with government intervention, innovations that have encouraged inventions such as the Internet (originally ARPANET, a Department of Defense project).
He crafted the simile that America's moment now is like a moment in our past, the space race with Russia: "This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said.
To build his case, he discussed, but not for long, that the world has changed -- the global economy is more competitive -- other nations are surpassing us in areas such as science and computer technology. He sugar-coated the message that we need to wake up, a statement BlogHer's Gena Haskett said more bluntly in December.
To prepare America to move toward greater innovation, he offered:
In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology –- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.
As he progressed to education reform, he struck a chord that resonated with those present:
That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It's family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline. (emphasis added for the point at which he garnered applause)
On the government's side, he promoted his "Race to the Top" program," saying it is replacing "No Child Left Behind," which he implied was less flexible with too many burdensome mandates on school systems. Furthermore, he said "over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math."
He also seeks to weed out "bad teachers" from schools, a stand for which he's already taken heat, and to make college tuition credits permanent.
In addition, he returned to his hopes for immigration reform and hammered a point that he often hit on the campaign trail, creating jobs through rebuilding America's infrastructure, "from high-speed rail to high-speed internet." These are areas in which he said his administration has already made progress. However, perhaps given the history of earmark padding in infrastructure contracts, he also said:
And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it. I will veto it.
Well, all this sounds great, Mr. President, I thought, but what about that deficit? How are we going to come up with the money for these wonderful programs, not to mention health care reform?
Obama wants to cut subsidies to oil companies, saying they are doing fine without tax dollars. He also wants to get rid of loopholes that allow companies, armed with skilled lobbyists, to avoid paying taxes. In addition, he still wants the wealthiest Americans to pay more in taxes. He said that reducing tax breaks for the wealthy is not about punishing their success but promoting American success.
While he expressed a willingness to work with Republicans on changes to the current health care reform legislation, admitting the need for "correcting a flaw in the legislation that has placed an unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small businesses," he stated firmly that he will not consider changes that return us to pre-existing condition escape clauses for insurance companies. He said futher:
Still, I'm willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year -- medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.
He also indicated he is willing to make cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare and to strengthen Social Security, presumably through streamlining, but said he will not do so at the expense of current retirees. Likewise, he proposed freezing annual domestic spending for the next five years. (You can read more about these cuts in the section of his speech that begins here.)
From there, cutting spending and reorganizing the government to save money, he moved to foreign policy, exporting more American products to the world, dealing with terrorism, leaving Iraq, and praises for our military, with a hat tip to the repeal of DADT. His praise and support of our troops received the longest applause of the evening.
As the president concluded, he returned to rhetorical fireworks, not so much in delivery but in language, appealing to our ideals, the American dream and our faith in the nation. The best rah-rah line of the night was this one:
And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.
And when he referenced the working-class backgrounds of the two men behind him, Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner, I thought for moment he'd almost snatched some low-hanging fruit: misty eyes from the Speaker.
Finally, he delivered an allusion to Dr. Martin Luther King's "Mountaintop" speech at the end. King said, "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"
President Obama said:
"We are a nation that says, "I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company. I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree. I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try. I'm not sure how we'll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we'll get there. I know we will." (emphasis added)
However, he did not adopt an MLK-like cadence, as he has done sometimes in the past.
What I saw in this speech is a president who has matured, but perhaps maintains some of his idealism despite the "shellacking" his administration took during the mid-term elections. He tried to strike a balance between the role of president as cheerleader and the role of president as straight-talker about problems and solutions. So, I sensed a rainbow on the horizon for a moment -- but only a moment, because I know that it takes more than his say-so.
For what he proposes to come to fruition, he must have the cooperation of both Republicans and Democrats, both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Consequently, the question remains, "Will Congress work with this president? Can we get past the bickering?"
The following links may be useful. Read more at WhiteHouse.gov, where officials are engaging the public and answering questions or follow on Twitter and Facebook. The public was also invited to submit questions to the president via YouTube.
BlogHer.com is non-partisan. Its writers are not.
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