Civility, my last blog, was barely in evidence during the President’s annual presentation this past week. The dead-pan Republican speaker of the house, Paul Ryan, nervously twiddled his fingers for an hour as Obama carefully and rationally addressed the multiple challenges facing the United States. The Republican Party members remained in their seats and failed to applaud most of the important points Obama emphasized. They sat immobilized even as Obama proclaimed the US as the world’s most powerful nation.
Obama seemed far more confident than in previous speeches to Congress. I found it encouraging that he was again standing proud. In part this is due to the way he has been increasingly successful in pushing through his agenda — which his opponents find hard to acknowledge. Republicans have steadily refused to give the president any credit for his successes while in office. This is part of their enforced party line of denial which has led Republicans to go so far as to vote even against bills whose content they actually approve.1
The right-wing media, spear-headed by Fox News, derided the speech as un-newsworthy. Trump waved it aside as “a bore.” At least Republican critics were no longer questioning the president’s competence. What they consciously and intentionally ignored was that the leader of their nation was giving a rational, intellectual and polished address on the multiplicity of challenges which will be facing the US in the years ahead. His carefully optimistic speech went directly against the opposition’s efforts to portray the era we live in as a fundamentally dark one.
No one in the media came out to say that the US has been most fortunate in having such a capable and intelligent commander-in-chief. Alas, racism remains very much alive in the latter-day Confederate southern half of the nation which is galled that a man of mixed race could be such an insightful and careful orator. As one can see from the anti-intellectual, fact-hating, and facile presentations made by all of the seven remaining Republican candidates for the presidency, a rational approach to the nation’s problems is not on their agenda. It is not fashionable. The electorate is distancing itself from first-class intellects.
As I wrote in my introductory blog two years ago, I wanted to focus on positive alternatives to our future on this planet. Obama was direct in recognizing that the pace of change is accelerating in reshaping the way we work, live, and think: “Today technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated.” Obama did not provide a possible solution, but at least placed it at the forefront of the nation’s agenda.
Obama expressed his concern more generally about “the right thing to do” in education, health, protecting the environment and managing energy resources. He emphasized that the nation had to make sure that the economic system was not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and the biggest corporations. Tactfully, he did not mention that the opposition’s program was limited to lower taxation, a smaller federal government, and a cut in critical environmental protection. Nothing truly positive there for the nation’s future — just a cutback on what exists, but Obama was determined not to increase divisiveness.
At the same time, Obama pointed out that we must keep pace with new realities such as the transformation of the Middle East. Calmly and directly he explained that Daesh and other Muslim terrorist groups did “not threaten our national existence… We do not need to build them up to show that we’re serious… with nearly 10,000 air strikes, we’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons.” That’s not passivity, but a realistic approach. However, Obama warned that his successors could be faced with much “instability which will continue for decades in many parts of the world.”
To the derogatory sound-bites of those Republicans currently running for president, Obama advocated that the only smart approach for the nation was “a patient and disciplined strategy.”2 “Leadership,” said Obama, “means a wise application of military power and rallying the world behind causes that are right.” Irrespective of what the media may counter, I believe Obama has given exactly such leadership to the American people.
This speech revealed a more confident, successful President,3 ready to recognize that his approach has often been criticized for being too “intellectual” rather than reassuring. In the next twelve months that he remains in office, he plans to visit all parts of the nation to promote his program. “He wants this year to be about the future and sees big opportunities” said Denis McDonough, his chief of staff.4 Obama now has a bully pulpit and showed in this speech that he had every intention to use his unilateral executive powers to skirt his opponents in Congress. Whether he will succeed in persuading the nation that not only is gun control a necessity, but also that the billions being contributed by a small number of the ultra rich to political causes now threatens to undermine the American democratic process itself. Such a valedictory program is laudable indeed.
1i.e the water bill this past week.
2Something each of the seven rejects, for the sake of the cameras, they embrace immediate and instinctive emotional responses.
3Simon Schama listed these as: “Stopping the economic free fall of 2008; halving unemployment; achieving a serious climate change agreement; providing 17 million Americans with health insurance.”
Simon Schama, “Political debate needs a thoughtful makeover,” The Financial Times, January 17, 2016, p.11
4Albert R. Hunt, “Measuring a president’s successes,” The New York Times, January 11, 2016.