A hopeful State of the Union–upstaged by the manhunt for Christopher Dorner


For Asian Americans, the best thing about the 2013 State of the Union may have been that outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu was given a somewhat left-handed parting gift by the president, who named Nobel Laureate Chu “designated survivor.” He was the smartest man not in the room. What a way to pad a resume. The U.S. was as close as it ever was to having an Asian American president.

Of course, we would have needed a major catastrophe.

Christopher Dorner’s climactic manhunt doesn’t count.

The race to report Dorner’s death in a burning cabin in California upstaged the president’s speech and was in a strange way more indicative of the “state of the nation.”

You have a 33-year-old college grad from Southern Utah University, a former LA cop and Navy reservist, who after being fired from his job apparently could only find solace through a murderous and vengeful gun rage.

Dorner snapped. He targeted former colleagues and their families, including the daughter of the former LAPD captain who represented him at a disciplinary hearing. One of Dorner’s first victims was Monica Quan, the 28-year-old daughter of Capt. Randal Quan.

How many others after this rough economy are close to the breaking point, trying to hold on to any claim to that “thriving middle class” the president talked about in his speech?

That’s why this State of the Union address was important for regular people to hear. I mean the non-CEOs. The non-bailed-out. The oft forgotten rank-and-file members of this democracy. As the country slowly comes out of recession, regular Americans still need help and assurances that we’re moving forward.

We don’t need another Christopher Dorner.

But we sure needed the uplift of a State of the Union address.

Once again, we watched a president in January give his assessment and laundry list, and as a group, we Asian Americans generalized ourselves and lost the modifier to become just plain old American.

That’s what we are, of course, though there are times this seems easily forgotten.

As Americans, what we heard tonight was hopeful. Help is on the way, if the political class can work together. Not to come up with perfect solutions, but to simply make some progress.

It wasn’t the speech of a raging lame duck. It was the speech of a confident president who believes that government can do us all some good.

“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” said the president. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”

It was a good speech with enough detail on energy policy, jobs, education, even on raising the minimum wage to whet a wonk’s appetite.

But most assuredly we saw the future of American politics when the counter to our first African American president was given by a conservative Latino. This time it was Senator Marco Rubio of Florida in a self-serving rebuttal. Acting as the small government, do-it-yourselfer, Rubio lambasted Obama’s solutions as typical “tax more, spend more.”

Some things never change.

But Obama’s speech was more than that.

There really was a sense of hope. The GOP’s Eric Cantor might have been looking stern while sitting on his hands, but Obama’s call for bipartisan support to raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour got big cheers.

Said the president: “So here’s an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year: let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on. Tonight, let’s also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it’s virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job. America is not a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that is why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.”

That was one of the more hopeful moments in the speech.

And, of course, the president gave hope for real immigration reform. The call for a “pathway to citizenship” got halting applause from the right. But so did some of the other specifics from the left on items like background checks, paying taxes, learning English, and “going to the back of the line.” We’re not as close to agreement as it sometimes appears.

But everyone seemed to cheer when the president declared: “Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

The speech wound its way through the thick policy parts to the emotional punches at the end that came in the call for meaningful gun control reforms.

That was predictable, and a tad manipulative. How effective it was is still unclear. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich was interviewed, saying none of the reforms would have prevented a Dorner. Maybe not, but a better sense of economic security might have.

From guns, the president segued into his big finish, where the theme was diversity.

Usually the SOTU has some passage where what I call “the litany of who we are” is recited (e.g., black, Latino, Asian, gay, etc.).

But tonight it took the form of this thoughtful end:

“We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title. We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

I would have preferred the standard “We the people,” as we “the citizens” is a phrase that too often puts up an unappealing dividing line that’s been used to discriminate against our immigrant communities.

But it didn’t matter really. The joy of the speech was shortlived.

The president ended one of the most hopeful State of the Union addresses he’s ever made, only to be brought back to a more mundane state of the union, and a breaking report that Christopher Dorner was dead.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
read Emil's bio