Democrats Abroad Hungary is a motley crew. We each have our own story. A few are students, here for a term or two. There are those who came for a job years ago and never left, and others who can't wait to leave. Some have family ties. Some married Central Europeans, had kids, bought homes and settled into life here. Some divorced, but stayed anyhow. Then there are those, like me, who just showed up here, for reasons not entirely clear even to us.
Whatever the reasons for our dislocation, we are Americans. We can't help caring. Something of hope, justice, and possibility burns at our core. It is for that reason we are gathered to watch Obama's State of the Union message at the Café Spinoza (you gotta love a city that names cafes after philosophers), a trendy, comfortable eatery with a theater, in the up-and-coming old Jewish district of Budapest. Gathered around the table are about forty registered Democrats, ranging in age from their mid-twenties to their seventies, sipping wine or tea. I look longingly at the plates heaped with real looking hamburgers in seeded buns, cole slaw, and mounds of crispy fries, thinking to return the next time my native burger craving hits, once my January cleanse is over.
At the head of the table is a large video screen. We are streaming the address direct from the White House. Most of us have refrained from pre-screening it on the Net, to get the experience freshly. The sound goes on and, through the wonders of technology, we are united with millions of our countrymen and women. We see everyone rise as Obama comes down the aisle with his winning smile. It is good to see the bipartisan Congress seated together, even if it is just a gesture. I am of an age where I appreciate gestures. Sometimes they even are a precursor to substance.
We seem to share sharply critical eyes and a sense of jilted love for our estranged country. It feels good to watch in this group of ex-pat Americans. In Massachusetts, my last home, I watched alone. Maybe we band together here because we're far from our native land. It's painful enough to be disappointed in the President you worked for and put your faith in; it's almost unbearable to be disappointed alone in a foreign country. I made it a point to join this group tonight in part because I didn't want to be disappointed alone.
I expected camaraderie and commiseration. I did not expect what I got: Obama shone. It was not his moment of oratory glory. It was the moment I had long awaited, in which he threw down the gauntlet of vision and forward thinking in real, do-able policy terms, in clear, pro-active, non-adversarial language, and economic reasoning.
Rich Tafel wrote a piece in The Huffington Post right after the mid-term elections, suggesting that Obama learn to speak Republican. It deconstructed the way in which Republicans frame issues in terms of fiscal impact and results, while Democrats frame issues in terms of rights. Thus it is easy to knock us down by making our arguments seem sentimental and economically ill-conceived. Tafel, a gay, Progressive Republican, was suggesting that Obama frame the very same issues and policies he had been failing to sell, in terms of fiscal soundness and economic recovery. Apparently Obama got the message.
That was the Obama I heard deliver the SOTU -- an Obama whose thinking, after all, references the Chicago School of Economics, speaks the language of deficits, free-market, investment, and sound fiscal policy. This Obama did not argue for health care based on what the Republicans call bleeding-heart Liberalism, of everyone having a right to care, but in terms of cost containment. He did not argue for alternative energy and high-speed rail in tree-hugger terms, but in terms that hard-nosed business could understand: American innovation as a means to regaining our competitive edge in the changing global market. A fiscally responsible way to pay for it? Stop subsidizing Big Oil, yesterday's fuel, making it sound like such a subsidy was mere nostalgia. Immigration reform was argued on the grounds that we are losing some of our best talent by sending students back to their native lands where they compete with us in science and industry. And last but not least, he talked about the need for less bureaucracy, the right of citizens to see where their tax dollar is being spent, more efficient government, and simplifying the tax code, long the battle-cry of business unable to innovate, buried under mounds of red tape.
His speech could lead the way to a true bi-partisan future: Doing what needs to be done for the nation and the world through polices that are humane, innovative, and fiscally smart both now and long-range; and to look at our problems through all those lenses. This is not watering down our Democratic values; it is giving them legs.
There were a few in our group who bemoaned the loss of the traditional Democratic rights-based language, thinking he was giving in. But most of the ex-pats assembled, savvier than the average bear, cheered. They saw the need to meet Republicans on their own turf -- the turf of fiscal responsibility and economic growth -- and challenge them there, without compromising our humane stands. In so doing, the President was able to take stronger stands than he had done previously on big oil, DADT, clean energy, immigration, corporate tax loopholes, open information, and education.
Republican and Tea Party responses were sadly predictable. There is a mean spirit alive in the land, despite the rhetoric of civility. Those who want to destroy Obama at any cost will accuse him of being elitist in his verbiage, and when he changes it, they will turn around and call his speech Disneyfied and disingenuous. When he comes up with real dollar-and-cents rationale for Progressive programs, they will ignore or lie about them. To those people, it won't matter what he does or says. If he quoted them back to themselves, they would contradict him; they already have. If he says black, they will say white. If he says white, they will accuse him of playing the race card. They will not, under any circumstances, let him win.
Their criticisms are not coming from a commitment to solving the deficit or the economy, any more than an abusive spouse is really in a rage about the dinner being cold. But this time he called their bluff. Their attacks in the aftermath of his speech seemed emptier than usual, as if they were flailing about, trying to stay on script with arguments that had no teeth, since he had already addressed each and every one of their fiscal concerns with substance. They even stooped to saying they were bored, as if it were the President's responsibility, in a State of the Union, to entertain the citizenry with a little bread and circus. And we may rest assured that, had he done so, that, too would have been criticized, as not taking the situation sufficiently seriously.
The Independents, Republicans, and Democrats who voted for Obama because we thought he had a shot at presenting real solutions and transcending partisan brouhaha, got the opportunity to see what he is really about, presenting Democratic values in hard-nosed economic terms. Whether his policies are allowed to succeed will be another story. But Obama took the high ground last night, and it will be difficult to take potshots without being called a spoiler. Whatever the Tea Party tries to spin from the speech, they may well fall flat. Michelle Bachman is already being called a balloon head. I like to think American voters are smart enough to understand his program makes sense for the future of our economy.
After more drinks and a spirited discussion, we finally left the café. I felt warm and encouraged, as I made my way home through streets that were cold and snowy. For the first time since leaving, I had some hope that my country could turn around. Maybe I could even help in some way. After all, like my fellow viewers at the Café Spinoza, I am still an American. And as our President said, we believe that anything is possible.
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