When any U.S. president gives an inaugural or State of the Union address, different people look for, and hear, different things.
Some focus immediately on the policy implications despite the fact that such addresses are notoriously short on policy specifics (for example: see "Wonkbook: Five policies to watch from Obama's State of the Union").
Some focus on how each party reacts to various portions of the address: who stands versus who remains seated; who applauds loudly versus who remains silent or offers a demure "golf clap"; who inappropriately yells "You lie!" thereby endearing himself with the Tea Party faithful.
Some focus on the overall tone of the address to discern whether it portends how that president will conduct his administration in the coming 12 months.
Some search for a broader or unifying vision for the country articulated by its leader.
And some take careful notes in preparation for offering a rebuttal of everything that's being said (e.g., "Republican rebuttal to State of the Union: Mitch Daniels slams Obama as 'pro-poverty'").
Judging from the variety of post-mortems following President Obama's address last night and this morning, yesterday's State of the Union was no exception to the range of responses typically elicited. The address was very bipartisan at times, and those assembled in the House Chamber responded appropriately. At other times, there was plenty of red meat for the Democratic faithful, some of whom the president still needs to win back before the November election. It presented a hopeful albeit generalized vision for "An America Built to Last" following four broad themes: "an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values." (See "State of the union 2012: full transcript of President Obama's speech.")
I resist being lumped in with all of the other political pundits and bloggers who have already offered their assessment of the State of the Union address, plus those who plan to do so in short order, offering one or more of the perspectives suggested above. So I'm focusing on five "take-aways" from last night. I have learned over decades of published articles, and public speeches and presentations, if you don't structure them around a set of "take-aways" -- the essential points you want your readers or audience to remember long afterwards -- then you've already lost them before you've even begun.
These are the State of the Union take-aways that resonated with me last night continuing into today.
We can accomplish a lot by working together.
This is the president extending a hopeful, bipartisan olive branch to the Republican Party leadership, suggesting that if both parties work together, like the four branches of our military so often do, great things can be accomplished to benefit the American people.
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America's Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
Unfortunately this is a quixotic notion: Unlike our armed forces, the mission of the GOP is very different from the president's. The GOP's stated mission since 2008 is to keep the president from being re-elected, and the president's mission is to show enough progress in his first term to deserve a second. However, perhaps by planting, once again, this seed of the president's efforts to reach across the aisle, maybe the sentiment behind the statement, reinforced by the analogy to our military, will endure with the American voter throughout the 2012 campaign.
I have accomplished more than the GOP can ever allow you to believe. The president brilliantly and seamlessly ran off a litany of his more-significant accomplishments, although it is telling that he left off this list what is supposed to be the capstone of his first term: health insurance reform (I refuse to call it "healthcare reform" because it really didn't reform the healthcare industry or delivery mechanisms, the cost of health services or how and who should pay for them).
The president's stated accomplishments include three million new jobs, contrasted with eight million job losses he laid at the doorstep of the Bush/Cheney Administration (four million by the close of 2008; another four million before the president's policies "were in full effect"); ending a decade of American military involvement in Iraq; ending Osama Bin Laden after two decades of terrorist activities threatening the U.S.; saving the U.S. auto industry by bailing out General Motors and Chrysler. Of course, other than the fact that Osama bin Laden is dead, the Republicans will argue strenuously over the facts and true merits of these "alleged" successes, and have already moved quickly to dispute them. I will be floored if at some time in the next 10 months the fringe-Right doesn't start disseminating new rumors, rather than continue to peddle that old, stale birther line of attack, that the president struck a deal with his Muslim brother, Bin Laden, who's now relaxing at a Sandals resort somewhere in the Caribbean.
Work with me or get out of my way.
The state of our Union is getting stronger. And we've come too far to turn back now. As long as I'm President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place. " [Emphasis added.]
That one, highlighted sentence was perhaps the boldest affirmative statement the president offered the American people last night, and certainly the one that most assures his base that candidate Obama from 2008 is back in full force. It reinforces a strategy the president has pursued, with great success, since late September, after his earlier American Jobs Act speech to a joint Session of Congress failed to yield bipartisan progress ( see "Has the President Turned the Corner?"). Simply put, the President has painted the Republican leadership, particularly in the House (where the GOP became the majority party after the 2010 mid-terms), as incorrigible obstructionists, despite which unending obstruction he has effected as much change as possible through Executive Orders and recess appointments.
Roughly translated, the president said, as forcefully as he's said anything since taking office, I would like to work with you to continue the remarkable accomplishments (I've achieved almost entirely on my own) but if you get in my way I will knock your sorry ass to the ground... hard! At least that's how I heard it last night. If that's not a statement that speaks to the power of American Exceptionalism, as liberally paraphrased, I don't know what is. Yes, I'm still black; deal with it!
The patriotic sacrifices made by the president's grandparents are intended to put him in a favorable light with many constituencies, as well as champion the broader notion of "shared sacrifice." Newt Gingrich, after all, expects to be given patriotic credit for the fact that his father served in the military (although Gingirch, himself, did not), so why not extend this "military service by association" idea by one more generation?
We can do this. I know we can, because we've done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton's Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.
However, it also subtly reminds voters that the president was raised by a single mother, who was white, at a time when the GOP seems to be doing everything in its power to remind its base that the president is African American (literally, since his father was from Kenya and his mother from the U.S.). Whether it's Newt Gingrich deploying the race-baiting he's perfected over the past three decades (including such dog-whistle comments on the campaign trail as referring to President Obama as "the food stamp president" and suggesting poor black children work as janitors in their inner-city schools) or Mitch Daniels referring to the president's address as advocating "pro-poverty policies," the GOP has been pandering to the most-loathsome, racist sentiments within its base by saying "and don't forget, Obama's a black man." Enough: Get over it already!
Are you really ready to make any of those other guys president? Of course, the president never mentioned the four, remaining GOP candidates seeking the party's nomination this summer because he didn't need to: That would dignify their respective existences beyond what is deserving for them (although he did say, among other things, "Washington should stop
subsidizing millionaires... if you're earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn't get special tax subsidies or deductions."). The president drew all the contrast needed between himself and four ideologues (well, two ideologues; one angry chameleon; and one well-lubricated weather vane) by being "presidential" rather than trying to act "as if."
No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other's backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we're joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
God bless you, Mr. President. And God bless the United States of America.