Are you Benny or Teddy?

State of the Union 2016: How We Define Ourselves

Obama at State of the Union

How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

This was the fourth question posed by President Obama last night during his 8th and final State of the Union address, questions that our leader believes we must collectively answer as we move forward into a brighter future. It was an excellent speech, harkening back to his early, even pre-POTUS days with his honest, passionate vision reminding his supporters what we loved about him so much in the first place. I will grant Obama critics that words and action are not necessarily one in the same, and thus the President’s eloquence may strike such a mind as sourly as it is to me inspiring. But last night’s SOTU expressed an accurate critique of our political structure, calling for a “better politics” and an optimism that was surely intended to contrast the corrosive tone adopted by both sides of our political machine. Pundits were quick to point to what they saw as thinly veiled shots at Donald Trump throughout the speech but viewing it that way misses the larger point. The attitudes and stances embraced by Trump (and others), the extremism, the boorishness, the xenophobia and even outright racism, represent a true danger to our country and political process, one we must confront if we are to reach the brighter future that the President was elucidating in his speech. If the negative qualities he was describing seem to match The Donald then perhaps it speaks more to his merit as a candidate than anything else.

The President’s speech was not without its partisan strokes. Mentions early on about job growth numbers and making college affordable for every American were greeted with imbalanced support. When the issue turned to the Affordable Care Act, the President said,

“My guess is we’re not going to agree on healthcare anytime soon,” which was met by low laughter and one puerile clapping response.

“There was a little applause back there,” responded Obama coyly, pausing briefly and then carrying on.

But I felt the President strove for a tone that was less contentious than years past and it was in the speech’s final third that his straight talk really caught stride, speaking on our national character, calling for us all to “reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion”. Again, one could see this as a veiled attack on Trump and his views on Muslims but it’s not just about him. It’s about all of us and the instinct to retreat into dark places when faced with new social challenges. He aptly described this instinct as “turn[ing] inward”, focusing on ourselves and our own fears rather than the larger social picture that affects us all, a marked difference between progressives and isolationists.

“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people, or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for and the incredible things we can do together?”

In calling for a “better politics”, the President mentioned some real, commonsense, bi-partisan measures that would improve the political landscape for all. “Rational, constructive debates”, an end to the corrupt policy of gerrymandering, reducing the influence of money in our elections specifically through the use of PAC’s and Super PAC’s, making voting easier rather than harder – seen through a lens unfiltered by party bias these are some of the biggest demons plaguing our political process. They are rampant on both sides of the aisle and should be able to be seen as positive improvements rather than just the party politics of a progressive. He continued with a moment of humility, saying that the acrimonious atmosphere in Washington is “one of the few regrets of [his] presidency… There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide…”

In attempting to cut through the rancor and fearmongering currently making up our national discourse, he refuted several of the claims and attitudes that continue to misinform the American electorate. He diminished the “World War III” language being used by several candidates. He argued against the calls of Ted Cruz (and others) to “carpet bomb civilians”, saying that tough talk “does well as a tv soundbyte but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.” He wisely separated the issue of radicals from religion, asserting that, “we don’t need to lose vital allies by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions.” He spoke of our failed nation-building policy.

“That’s not leadership,” he said, “it’s a recipe for quagmire. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, it’s the lesson of Iraq and we should have learned it by now.” It is indeed a newer approach, one that addresses the modern world in which we live while discarding the stalwart, bellicose attitude held by many in our country’s leadership.

One might describe the President’s address perhaps as subdued, but the passion and honesty that underlie his words paint a different picture. Indeed, his talk of the future has intent and implications for the election and the administration that follows him, purposely looking to aim the American people’s focus toward the possibilities of a brighter tomorrow rather than the fire and brimstone tone used to describe today’s problems by many on the campaign trail. You can label that partisan if you like, you can call it disingenuous if you so desire. How does his vision match the world in which we find ourselves at the beginning of this new year? Is it truly a land of possibility for all its citizens or is that no longer the American Dream, if we are to look it honestly in its modern face? Is there a strong enough contingent amongst us that believes we are better divided, that race, creed, and religion should separate us, that that is indeed part of who we are as a nation? Is Trump popular because he’s right? I shudder to imagine these statements as accurate and the cynicism that informs them eventually gives way to my true belief that the battle to shine light onto our darkest instincts is not a futile fight, that positive change and progress will win out over those aiming to maintain a disappointing status quo, as well as those looking to trap the American people with fear. Last night we heard from a man who does not believe he is without mistake but is ever confident in the abilities of the American people and who has always tried to do right by them. He quoted a statement that Pope Francis made to the very same Congressional body saying “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” In today’s political landscape we stand dangerously close to such a transition. As we look forward to Obama’s final year in office and the coming election, I am grateful to our brave leader for his tireless work towards a strong, progressive, and world-leading national character, for speaking Truth to stupid, for being my President especially when it wasn’t easy.


For the full text of last night’s State of the Union address, CLICK HERE.

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