“He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
That is the stated purpose of the State of the Union, and last night President Obama did just that. He, with eloquent oratory and poetic prose, diagnosed the State that our Union is in. For fifty-nine minutes, Barack Obama stood before a joint session of Congress and recited a speech that will long be remembered. It wasn’t heavy on policy, though it did contain some, and it certainly wasn’t polarizing as much of today’s political rhetoric is. Instead, our President called on the civic duty of the citizenry, as well as the legal and moral obligations of our political leaders. He spoke to the people, all of the people—even those who would rather not listen, and that is why last night’s speech was something special.
Last night President Obama sounded much like Josiah Bartlett, the fictional president from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Last night our nation was graced with an hour of hope and optimism, amidst one of the most divisive Presidential elections in recent history. There are times when speeches should be broken down and analyzed policy point, by policy point- however this is not one of those times. Last night I heard in our President, one I didn’t cast my vote for, the wisdom and empathy of Robert Kennedy.
But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t — it doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, it doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America.
Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise or when even basic facts are contested or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.
Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
But my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task — or any president’s — alone. There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber — good people — who would like to see more cooperation, would like to see a more elevated debate in Washington but feel trapped by the imperatives of getting elected, by the noise coming out of your base. I know; you’ve told me. It’s the worst-kept secret in Washington. And a lot of you aren’t enjoying being trapped in that kind of rancor.
Political speeches are often overshadowed by policy and the creative craftsmanship is oftentimes dismissed. I can’t let that happen, last night’s speech was a starting point- an opportunity to excise the hate speech that many of the Presidential candidates espouse. It was a call for inclusion, compromise and change. His closing remarks echo still, as they brought tears to my eyes. Yes, this was the Obama that people voted for in 2008, yes they were only words. But contrast them against the vitriol of Donald Trump and maybe you will gain a greater appreciation for power of positive ideas and beliefs.
So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, whether you supported my agenda or fought as hard as you could against it, our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen, to vote, to speak out, to stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody somewhere stood up for us.
It is not easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that, a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness, that have helped America travel so far.
Voices that 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 Democrat or Republican; 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. And they’re out there, those voices. They don’t get a lot of attention. They don’t seek a lot of fanfare, but they’re busy doing the work this country needs doing
I see them everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours. I see you, the American people. And in your daily acts of citizenship, I see our future unfolding.
I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages instead of laying him off.
I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late at night to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early, maybe with some extra supplies that she bought, because she knows that that young girl might someday cure a disease.
I see it in the American who’s served his time, made bad mistakes as a child, but now is dreaming of starting over, and I see it in the business owner who gives him that second chance; the protester determined to prove that justice matters; and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.
I see it in the soldier who gives almost everything to save his brothers, the nurse who tends to him until he can run a marathon, the community that lines up to cheer him on. It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught.
I see it in the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to; the new citizen who casts his vote for the first time; the volunteers at the polls who believe every vote should count, because each of them, in different ways, know how much that precious right is worth.
That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear- eyed, big-hearted, undaunted by challenge, optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future.
I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people. And that’s why I stand here, as confident as I have ever been, that the state of our Union is strong.