I call the following rhetoric from the State of the Union speech ‘aspirational,’ because it isn’t objectively true or false. It’s a call for all of us to be better people and better citizens. It generously praises us for things many of us have not done and for a character we may not have. But we’re welcome to earn the praise, and that is what he is inviting us to do.
You know what else [the American people] share? They share a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity. After one of the most difficult years in our history, they remain busy building cars and teaching kids; starting businesses and going back to school. They’re coaching little league and helping their neighbors. As one woman wrote me, “We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged.”
It is because of this spirit – this great decency and great strength – that I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it’s time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.
You know, sometimes our division comes close to breaking my spirit. So, like many others, I can use a pep-talk from time to time. Obama is good at this type of thing. The danger is that soaring rhetoric that is not matched by soaring accomplishment can lead to the criticism that Obama is ‘just words,’ as the Clinton supporters charged so often. This is something the Republicans understand very well. They are using unprecedented stalling and obstructive tactics to prevent Obama from passing his biggest bills and to slow his progress on appointments and smaller goals. They know that the Democratic base is impatient. They know that the Democratic base is repulsed when Obama is forced to craft all his legislation to the liking of the most conservative members of his own party. They know that their own base is charged up when they use every oppositional device at their disposal.
A debate opened up on the left as soon as Obama began announcing his cabinet. Was Obama going to get any bang for his buck by appointing Republicans and centrist Democrats to his cabinet? Would it make it easier to govern? Would it win him some votes from the Republicans in Congress? Would it inoculate him against some partisan attacks when he made tough choices on national security? Or, was he just giving away valuable jobs and setting himself up to get shitty advice without getting anything in return?
And this debate has continued throughout the first year of his presidency, particularly with regard to the efforts to get some Republican support for the health care reform bill. In the end, Obama lost several valuable months, including the narrow window where we had 60 senate votes, by trying to win over Republican support that he had very little chance of obtaining.
Yet, Obama hasn’t given up on one his core messages. Post-partisanship is a key component of the ‘change we can believe in.’
In the end, it is our ideals, our values, that built America – values that allowed us to forge a nation made up of immigrants from every corner of the globe; values that drive our citizens still. Every day, Americans meet their responsibilities to their families and their employers. Time and again, they lend a hand to their neighbors and give back to their country. They take pride in their labor, and are generous in spirit. These aren’t Republican values or Democratic values they’re living by; business values or labor values. They are American values.
Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions – our corporations, our media, and yes, our government – still reflect these same values. Each of these institutions are full of honorable men and women doing important work that helps our country prosper. But each time a CEO rewards himself for failure, or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people’s doubts grow. Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith. The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates into silly arguments, and big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.
No wonder there’s so much cynicism out there.
No wonder there’s so much disappointment.
I campaigned on the promise of change – change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change – or at least, that I can deliver it.
This is the kind of aspirational language that Obama excels at delivering…appealing to our better angels, telling us we are good, but that we can do better. It’s a key element of his appeal, but what if we aren’t good and we can’t do better? What if our institutions are fatally flawed? What then? Because that is how things feel right now. Obama’s answer?
But remember this – I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.
Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation.
But I also know this: if people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and grandchildren.
Again, I don’t think that telling of history is objectively true, but is calls for us to make it true in our own time. The problem is that bankers and CEOs and media executives and congresspeople are not going to change unless they are forced to change. And that is where the people can try to help Obama, or where they can blame him for the situation being ungovernable. That’s not to take Obama completely off the hook. He needs to bust some heads. He needs to take on his enemies rather than pleading with them to be reasonable. They’re not going to be reasonable. But, the truth remains, to get something done in Congress when the Republicans are pursuing a strategy of obstruction, you need a miracle. The election in Massachusetts was a miracle in the wrong direction.
Obama can’t abandon this aspirational language because it is important for us to hear and important to his success as a leader and a politician. But he must realize that happy-talk becomes empty blather if it isn’t matched by success. The Republicans know this. Obama ought to be clear about it, too.