On Jan. 25, President Obama came, he spoke and he conquered. We’ve seen lots of State of the Union addresses, but never one quite like this.
It wasn’t a laundry list of legislative proposals, or a wish list of presidential promises. And it didn’t turn into a high-school pep rally between Republicans and Democrats.
Instead, this speech was what a State of the Union address should be: a sober, serious, visionary look at where we stand today and where we need to go, together, to make America even greater.
What was most interesting was that, without uttering the words themselves, Obama stole a favorite phrase of conservatives: “American exceptionalism.” It’s their belief that America is qualitatively different from, and superior to, any other nation on earth. Obama borrowed that favorite theme of conservatives and tea partiers – and turned it against them.
Yes, we are the greatest nation on Earth, Obama declared. In fact, he reminded his audience, “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.” Both sides of the aisle jumped up to applaud.
But, if we really believe in America’s greatness, he challenged, we can’t just rely on the status quo. “The future is ours to win,” Obama declared. But, in order to do so, “We can’t just stand still. … We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”
That means investing in our future, on new technologies and new possibilities. That means developing new products and new, renewable forms of energy. That means giving our kids the best education possible to make sure we have the trained workforce necessary to lead us into the future. That means rebuilding our roads, highways and bridges and building new high-speed rail lines. And, yes, investing means spending money.
Obama’s State of the Union speech was, above all, a Whitmanesque celebration of the American dream. Rising above petty party differences, he challenged all Americans to work together and to be the best we can be. As Americans, the president said, “We do big things.” We always have, and we must continue to do so. We must grow, we must build and we must win.
And in response the best Mitch McConnell and John Boehner could do was grumble that more “investments” meant more “spending.” Duh! How pathetic. How shortsighted. Surely, they must understand history well enough to know that the moment any nation ceases to invest in its own future is the moment that nation starts its decline.
In many ways, this year’s State of the Union was an important turning point for America. Out of the president’s speech and both the official and unofficial Republican responses, we Americans have been offered two distinctly different agendas. President Obama wants to look forward, as he says, to “win the future.” Republicans want to repeal everything Obama has accomplished and take us back to 2008 and the failed policies of George Bush and Dick Cheney. I believe the American people have already made their choice. It’s not our style to go backward.
No speech is perfect, of course. So, I have two other observations – one good, one not so good.
President Obama was at his best when he stressed the importance of investing in education and, as part of that message, recognized the great work of America’s teachers. “In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders,” he said. “Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.” A valuable lesson when teachers and other public employees are under attack by new Republican governors. And there were echoes of John F. Kennedy when he encouraged young people: “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, become a teacher.”
But Obama missed a beat when, in the wake of Tucson, he failed to say anything about gun control. Surely, even strongest advocates of Second Amendment rights agree there’s something wrong with background checks when a nut like Jared Lee Loughner can so easily buy a weapon of mass destruction – and that nobody but the military and police should carry around mass murder, 30-round magazines.
Yes, there’s a time and season for everything. But when it comes to sensible gun-control laws, think of Gabby Giffords. If not now, when?