It was surprising how President Obama's State of the Union speech went down. Immediately afterwards, television pundits offered clashing descriptions: prosaic, bread-and-butter, Clinton-like, an extension of the liberal agenda outlined in the inaugural address, uplifting, aggressive and so on. More than many presidents, Obama has become a lighthouse and a lightning rod at the same time. He is the object of projection from all sides.
What I heard was something really unusual: inspiring sobriety. The speech laid out an agenda that was far from leftist. It was a considered assessment of social needs, postponed priorities and a difficult future. In this regard Obama departed from FDR, who was struggling to restructure a collapsed landscape; from JFK, who was launching a new era of power; and from Bill Clinton, whose laundry lists of programs came at a time of rising prosperity.
Obama spoke to an anxious nation by sounding upbeat and optimistic. He has little chance of getting much legislation passed. In the face of bitter partisanship even over pro forma matters like getting his cabinet appointed, he decided not to cloak himself as the happy warrior. He was more like the ideal citizen, a responsible patriot who wants the best for everyone.
It's amazing that the speech didn't exude discouragement. In a different vein, it could have come from Cassandra, the princess of Troy who was doomed to know the future but never to be believed. Every point that the president made, if enacted, would benefit all of us. He is intelligent, adult, informed, far-seeing and willing to embrace both sides of the aisle. He knows better than anyone else how irrational, ill-tempered and reactionary the opposition is. But he chose his tone of inspiring sobriety for a good reason: America won't move forward until everyone comes to his or her senses.
The Republican response, delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), was a classic case of burying one's head in the sand. Widespread disgust with Congress? A new generation of voters that wants government to make a difference? A resounding defeat last November? Talk of Republicans rethinking their message? Apparently none of that mattered. Rubio smoothly delivered the same message that came from the Republicans a month into Obama's first administration: We are the party of "no."
Obama will no doubt surprise us with how much he achieves against this background of opposition, division and angst. There is talk that the Senate is quietly working out deals on the toughest problems that face us. But the real issue comes down to that now-familiar phrase "the tipping point." The country has probably reached one. The reactionary right is on its way out, but they hold enough power and have indoctrinated enough people that getting off in a new direction will be painfully slow. Obama will have to use all his gifts to push the pedal and convince Americans that there is dawn rising over the next hill.
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