Lest anyone doubt that the “American character” includes acute schizophrenia, we get a rare opportunity this week to hear the words of Barack Obama almost side by side with the words of Donald Trump.
On Tuesday night, Trump will address a joint session of Congress, laying out fiscal and policy plans.
On Monday, at 8 p.m. ET, the Smithsonian Channel will air an hour-long special called The Obama Years: The Power of Words.
It’s a documentary-style look at six Obama speeches, including his keynote address at the Democratic national convention in 2004, his remarks after the shooting at Sandy Hook and his comments in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of the freedom march there.
Presumably the Smithsonian show will draw a smaller crowd than Trump’s address. Nonetheless, the comparison is irresistible, since the contrast between these two men – both powerfully effective speakers – tells us volumes about the American character.
Donald Trump is the football coach, firing up his team to seize the moment, go out there, focus on the enemy and trample him into the ground.
Barack Obama is the graduation speaker, telling his audience the measure of true victory is how well they live their whole lives, and whether they leave the world a little better than they found it.
These are, arguably, America’s two favorite types of speeches.
After Fort Sumter, Pearl Harbor or 9/11, we wanted to hear that we would survive this by subduing those who perpetrated it.
Trump has repeatedly declared we now face just such a critical moment: that we must 1) dismantle big, intrusive, inefficient, costly government and 2) stop playing nice with the rest of the world.
It’s classic football coach. We’ll win this game with every weapon we can find, then own the field when it’s over.
Some Americans find this attitude scary.
America also has a whole lot of football fans.
Obama, conversely, saw America on a long continuum wherein we became stronger and better as we gradually live up to the equality and opportunity promises of our Constitution.
He talked about areas like race, where we still struggle. He talked about progress as a long game, a slow, incremental and often painful process.
Where Trump’s speeches fall in with the tradition of, say, General George Patton, the easier comparison for Obama is to, say, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
That’s valid, though not entirely for the obvious reason.
While both men talked about dreams, they also gave speeches urging immediate concrete action. King called for active resistance to unjust laws. Obama challenged lawmakers to address the proliferation of guns.
That’s significant and encouraging because it proves this: The football coach and the graduation speaker don’t represent two separate and permanently divided Americas.
In fact, almost all of us respond to both those calls at different times, in different circumstances.
Donald Trump’s vow to vaporize the Affordable Care Act or environmental and fiscal regulations has its own promise of long-term reward: “making America great again.” To those on his team, those actions would do that.
Trump just puts his emphasis on winning now, while Obama is suggesting real victory doesn’t come until we can look back at the end of the season and say we played the game fairly and well.
Ready, aim, speak.