Friday, January 15, 2016

The State of the Union

"Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight. And 12 years later, we were walking on the moon."

"Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it."

"But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages -- they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit." 

"The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage."

"We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it's done with the best of intentions. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it's the lesson of Iraq -- and we should have learned it by now."

"But after years now of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks just by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense.  Middle-class families are not going to feel more secure because we allowed attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered. Food Stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did.  Immigrants aren’t the principal reason wages haven’t gone up; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts."

"It’s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package for 30 years are sitting in this chamber. For everyone else, especially folks in their 40s and 50s, saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher...  That’s why Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever. We shouldn’t weaken them; we should strengthen them."

These are some salient excerpts from President Obama's last State of the Union.  For me it wasn't his best written or delivered speech in the past year or so, but he made strong and coherent arguments, both in support of what he has done and what he believes needs to be done in this "focus on the future."

 The last part of the speech, which focused on how to make American democracy work again, was trenchant and bold, even in stating the problem.  He outlined the causes and consequences, and some practical solutions, like making it easier for more people to vote.

He expressed regret that during his presidency "the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide." Maybe--but not if Lincoln or Roosevelt were black.

 A speech of larger vision about the future might have mesmerized the Twits, distracting them from the zombie behind him who is now the House Speaker, or the color of Michelle's dress.  But probably not.  Part of the problem is the hyped-up partisanship, the inflation of partisan politics (as both ultimate morality and entertainment) over all other aspects of reality.

President Obama ended by trying to undermine this, and talking about the acts of citizenship and community, some extraordinary and the rest just ordinary, by "ordinary people."  The "you'd do the same for me" society.  This aspect of America led him to declare the state of the Union is strong.

Commentators seemed to miss this entirely, looking only for the politics.  And there is probably too much rancor for it to register among those who were actually listening rather than tweeting, texting and surfing.

The dissatisfaction with President Obama as he starts his last year is not entirely unusual--conservatives and much of the media hated Bill Clinton, and liberals were disappointed and embarrassed by him.  But Obama, guilty of being President while black, has less of a margin of built-in forgiveness for imperfection.  And then there's this irrational terror of terrorists to the exclusion of greater and nearer dangers--until Trump deflates and his trumped-up fear mongering is shown to have less appeal than it appears.

But I'm with Jonathan Chiat in a recent column: "In the light of history, the Obama administration is likely to be seen as a triumph. The sour perspective maintained by his supporters in his own time will be forgotten — or, if and when it is revisited, it will seem very weird."

No comments: