A Speech Chasing a Dream

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 26, 2011, issue of February 04, 2011.
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“Tepid,” they said, and “flat.” “No specifics,” they charged; “a missed opportunity,” they concluded. When the commentators of CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and MSNBC all have similar takes on a straightforward event — in this case, the president’s State of the Union message — I’m inclined to invoke my own private anti-trust act. Were there a chance of journalistic collusion, I’d prosecute, indicting for a speech seen and then — herd.

A few phone calls to friends were sufficient to reassure me that the speech I’d heard, the same speech the commentators dissed, was, as I’d thought as I watched it, borderline terrific. Hot, not tepid; very specific, not vague. A president who sounded like a president, who sought to put his thoughts and plans before the nation from a perch above the daily fray. An entirely appropriate amalgam of the mystical and the statistical, a coherent framework for organizing Washington’s work.

On Social Security, for example, a specific rebuff to mischievous Republican proposals such as cutting prospective benefits for people younger than 55 and permitting people to invest some part of their benefits in the stock market. The president’s take? Benefits for future generations must not be slashed and American’s guaranteed retirement income should not be subjected “to the whims of the stock market.”

On the tax break for the wealthiest Americans, no renewal; on immigration, a cheer for the Dream Act and a call for a smarter immigration policy; on investment in infrastructure, including high-speed rail and clean energy, a resounding endorsement. And so forth.

Why then do I say merely “borderline terrific?”

Less for what President Obama said than for what he chose not to mention. Not a word on gun control (“soon,” we’re told by his aides); nothing on the Senate’s shameful delays in confirming presidential nominees to office; no credit claimed for the rescue of an entire industry (the auto industry, in case you’ve not noticed). Nary a word on the Middle East, aside from his stirring endorsement of Tunisia’s recent revolution. (The latest news from Egypt suggests that what happened in Tunis may well presage enormous change throughout the region, terrific in principle but messy, very messy in practice.) And no mention at all of Wall Street and its miscreants.

The omissions are, by and large, understandable in a speech meant to blanket the Congress in fellowship. This president studiously avoids the politics of blame. His refusal to point an accusatory finger in his remarkable Tucson speech is the best example of that; the State of the Union scores a respectable second. (One measure of its success is how out of sorts, even churlish, both Representatives Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann, he in his official Republican response to the president’s message, she in the Tea Party response, sounded, how ill their tempers seemed and riddled with blame in comparison to the president.)

I am rather more troubled by the president’s repeated invocation of American exceptionalism. He didn’t use the term explicitly, as did both Ryan and Bachmann, but he didn’t have to. Two examples: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business,” and, more notably, “I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.”

So what? Isn’t it sufficient, as the president said in his final comments, that we are a nation that “does big things?” Is it not sufficient to be good, and then better, even if we spurn the illusory “best?” Chasing best-ness leads to such common absurdities as claiming that America “enjoys the world’s finest health care,” as Bachmann did in her remarks, an assessment that is simply false by just about any measure and that prompts a dangerous reluctance to reform the system we have. Pride, yes; hubris, no.

The capstone: Sometimes, grand rhetoric can smother meaning. “We may have different backgrounds,” the president said, “but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything’s possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.” And then he went on to cite as examples of that dream’s potency his own story as well as the stories of Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, both sitting just behind him. Sort of a bouquet to America, pleasant filler when it passes by. But when you stop to consider the histories of these three men, the dream really does come alive and remains vital. Arguably the three most powerful men in the country, and all three from truly humble origins.

That is a dream worth having, worth pursuing, worth living.


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