On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will deliver his second official State of the Union Address to Congress, extending a tradition that dates back to George Washington.
It is fitting that the address comes just about a week before Groundhog Day, as it has become the political equivalent -- ceremonial, rote, and, while absorbing in the way reality TV is, of little real consequence.
There will be the predictable soaring rhetoric, with entreaties and proposals likely on the economy, education, health care, foreign policy, Social Security and this year, with the events of Tucson still painfully raw, on gun control and on the tone and nature of the political debate itself. But outside of a few shared nods to the need for a more civil political discourse, reactions will be decidedly partisan. While there is, at long last, some thought being given to breaking down the strict party-line seating arrangements, we'll still know who is who. Democrats will grin, stand and cheer. Republicans will look dyspeptic, sit cross-armed, and appear, alternately, disinterested or disapproving.
Afterwards, the Republicans will broadcast their response and politicians and pundits alike will flood the airwaves with their trenchant analyses which will -- surprise, surprise -- hew strictly to party lines and/or political agendas.
Ugh. Time for a change in this unfortunate and futile status quo -- and what better place to start than the State of the Union address. Wouldn't it be great if this were the year that the State of the Union address actually spanned the literal and figurative aisle (which seems more like a chasm) between Democrats and Republicans, staked out our common ground and, most importantly, precipitated real change in the human condition -- like curing lung cancer?
Lung Cancer: A Sorry State of Disunion
The not-so-subtle subtext to the State of the Union and the Republican response is that for all the pomp and circumstance, all the seemingly polite political espousing and endless erudite analysis, we are a house badly divided. Worse yet, we're like a family where the family members can't even have a civil dinner table conversation.
Most people I know are sick of the accusatory, venomous tone and tenor of the political "dialog" in this country. The environment? The economy? Health care? Surely there is something we can agree on. How about this: The fact that 160,000 of us will die of lung cancer in 2011 -- more than the total for breast, colon, ovarian, melanoma, brain and leukemia COMBINED -- is a national travesty.
While there have been dramatic improvements in the survival rates for breast, pediatric and prostate cancer, lung cancer remains a death sentence. If you're diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer -- the most common staging at diagnosis -- the five-year survival rate is four percent, where it was decades ago. Successive Congressional sessions and Presidential administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have just stood by and let this sorry story unfold.
Fortunately, there is something this President and this Congress can do about it -- and along the way establish some common ground. It would be a political masterstroke and a profound human service if President Obama devoted a single paragraph in his State of the Union Address to exhort Congress to finally pass the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act -- and if the entire Congress rose in unison in robust applause and cheering.
The Act -- which has lingered unhealthily in both houses of Congress like so much smoke in a political backroom -- seeks to halve the number of lung cancer deaths in the next five years. The Senate version in particular is smart, bipartisan, long overdue legislation that our elected officials in Washington have inexplicably dragged their feet on. The 112th Congress can do something about this. Mr. President, ask them!
Obama and Boehner: The Opportunity of Two Lifetimes
The particular charm of using the State of the Union Address to encourage passage of the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act is that we have a sitting President and Speaker of the House who have smoked for decades.
That's ironic because one of the factors that has kept this dreadful disease from getting the attention and dollars it requires is the insidious, lethal and unspoken notion that because most people who get lung cancer smoked, they somehow "deserve it" -- a notion that when applied to the President and the Speaker seems particularly absurd. It doesn't seem to matter that nicotine exercises a heroin-like vice grip on smokers, that many people get lung cancer who stopped smoking 20 years ago or more, that 30,000 Americans will die of lung cancer in 2011 who never puffed a cigarette, that one of the fastest growing cancers of all is lung cancer in women who have never smoked, and that lung cancer has a particularly high incidence and mortality rate among servicemen and women.
Mr. President, you have a powerful, teachable moment. Congress, you have a unique opportunity to prove to the American public that you're not just about partisanship, pontification and re-election. Maybe, just maybe this is the year that the State of the Union Address is remembered more for its partnering than its posturing.
Encourage President Obama to recognize lung cancer as a national health crisis in his State of the Union address by sending him a message here, reaching out on Twitter @BarackObama or writing to him at: The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20500.
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