Obama’s one last appeal for a United States that works–together
State of the Union addresses are usually more “I have a list,” than they are “I have a dream.”
But for this last go-round for President Obama, his list was shorter than normal, and the dream part was much larger.
And this comes from a list-worthy president, whose accomplishments were far greater than anyone seems to be giving him credit for.
People of color know how that goes in a world that’s still “last hired, first fired.” One that demands that you be twice as good to be good enough.
Sure, Obama has had his stumbles. Government surveillance wasn’t mentioned in his speech. But he did mention Guantanamo.
“That’s why I will keep working to shut down the prison in Guantanamo,” the president said. “It’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies.”
The promise of a shutdown made seven years ago that stays dangling.
Still, balance that with Obama’s impressive “good” list: Health care, climate change, the freedom to marry, cheap gas, the economy.
Remember back to 2008 when the world seemed to be falling apart, and Chicken Little was Chicken Big. Unemployment was around ten percent, mortgages were underwater. and people were scared of banks.
Well, we haven’t jailed any bankers. But the economy has gotten a lot better.
Now we’re just scared of terrorists and each other.
It was the speech’s two key themes for me: Fear and diversity.
We’ve become a phobic nation.
That’s why we got this speech for Obama’s final State of the Union.
The nation’s great. Our politics? Do you hear a giant sucking sound?
The speech was a vision of what our democracy and our politics could be like in a new America.
The president had to remind us, as if we were a country that had forgotten its civics lessons.
“We the People,” said the president. “Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together. That brings me to the fourth, and maybe the most important thing I want to say tonight.
“The future we want–opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids–all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.
“It will only happen if we fix our politics.”
We know what that means, as Obama seemed to point a finger at GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
“That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” the president said. “This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith.”
The president continued: “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
Who are we? In state of the union addresses, the president usually likes to slip in what I call “the diversity litany.” More than a shoutout, it’s the reminder in these speeches that we are all one.
But this year, it came with a twist.
He talked about a future when he is no longer in office, when he’ll be one of us, a citizen, inspired by those who help see ourselves in a certain way and “who help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word–voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.”
Was he talking about us?
I like to call myself an American Filipino, and identify American first. But was Obama really lamenting the hope that never was, our faux post-racial America? After Obama, what kind of post-racial will we get?
I knew then I had heard this speech before. Working together. Bipartisan appeals. Fixing our politics. It has been an appeal throughout the Obama presidency.
Seems like I heard it first in 2009, when the president came to Washington.
I remember standing in the cold of Washington in January covering the inaugural, and wondering how long the euphoria I was witnessing would last.
Had that proverbial time come to American politics? Was the hell of politics freezing over? Or was any sense of achieving some new political plateau just temporary?
That inaugural week was a Washington I hadn’t seen before. People were high-fiving and excited. There was a kind of giddiness and a genuine spirit of cooperation. It was a country that had elected its first black president.
The feeling didn’t last long. But Obama’s still done a lot.
That’s what I was thinking throughout the final state of the union speech. Imagine how much could have been done if the country were truly united?
That would have made this last year a real victory lap. Instead, we’re looking at the future, trying hard not to backslide into our fears.