I rarely listen to the State of the Union address. I rather incline to Thomas Jefferson’s sentiment that it flatters the institution of the Presidency, and to his decision to deliver his in writing. So, as with most of his previous addresses, I read President Obama’s last oration on the state of our union rather than listening to it in real time.
So I don’t know if it came off this way when he delivered it, but reading it I was struck by an overarching theme, that of winners and losers.
I wonder where that theme might have come from.
The basic structure of the argument of the speech, as I read it, was as follows:
- Change happens, and is only partly under anyone’s control.
- When we adapt to change and seize the opportunities it offers, we win.
- In all sorts of ways, America has been adapting well, and seizing the opportunities of change, and as a consequence America is winning.
- Not everybody in America is winning, or believes they are winning.
- Those people – the losers – are the people who oppose me and my agenda.
- We, the winners, have to help those people more, and those people have to open their hearts and minds to the possibility that the winners, like me, actually know what we’re talking about.
The President wasn’t quite so blunt as that, but nonetheless, I think that’s the gist. And that gist is politically problematic, both because it’s not exactly right about the nature of the President’s opposition and because it’s not really the best way to make the argument regardless of the facts.
Opposition to Obamacare, for example, isn’t coming from people who were falling through the cracks before. It’s coming from people who have seen their cost of insurance go up, or who have had to change doctors, as a consequence of the redistribution scheme that makes it possible to cover the people who were falling through the cracks. These people see themselves as having lost something, and having lost it because the government thought giving a benefit to someone else was important, and that they deserved to pay for that benefit. Similarly, popular opposition to efforts to combat climate change is coming from people who fear they will lose out as a result of those regulatory efforts – for example, people in coal country who see their industry’s very existence threatened by the government’s choices.
It’s all well and good to say: on balance, these choices are good for America. As it happens, I think these choices are good for America, even if they can be further improved upon. But there are losers as well as winners in these choices, and those losers are not losing because of “change” – they are losing because of choices. And I suspect it is grating to hear someone who is clearly winning lecture them about how they are losing because of impersonal forces of history that must be accommodated, and that they shouldn’t take out their frustrations on the wrong target. Even if it’s true, it’s a lousy message for reaching those people.
The President got in some strong points in the next section of the speech, articulating the four challenges America faces – combatting inequality of opportunity, using technology to fight climate change, charting a foreign policy for a world threatened more by disorder than by powerful enemies, and making our political culture more liberal (sorry, “make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst”). In particular, the foreign policy vision he outlined is one I agree with far more than I do with the foreign policy the President has actually carried out.
But the framework, which led straight into the ending peroration, hobbled its effectiveness. His call to liberalism is a call not to give in to “frustration,” not to “scapegoat” not to be “cynical.” He’s asking small business owners to be more generous – to workers looking for a raise, and to ex-cons looking for a first job. He’s asking cops to treat protesters with respect, tradition-minded parents to accept their gay children, and Republicans to give up the advantage their domination in state legislatures gives them in Congressional redistricting. I agree with all of those goals. But if I didn’t – or even if I did agree with some or all of them, but didn’t like Obama or Democrats in general – I wouldn’t want to hear a lecture from the President about how I’m not pulling my weight.
Liberalism, at its heart, is about generosity – spiritual and material. This is not a liberal moment in American politics. Which brings me to the real target of the President’s speech. The speech was barely aimed at rallying Democrats against the Republican opposition. It was aimed, first and foremost, at the campaign that has been overturning American politics for the past year, and that shows no signs of flagging.
The best evidence of this fact? That the official Republican response echoed the President’s themes of inclusion, comity and not giving in to fear far more than it indicted the President’s record or his policy prescriptions. Governor Haley’s official response to the State of the Union on behalf of her party was all-but explicitly structured as a plea to Republicans, and Americans, not to embrace the response to the Obama years that Donald Trump has been making daily for months. I can’t imagine he didn’t notice. I rather suspect he’ll be helped, rather than hurt, by it, if it has any effect at all.
The frustrations many Americans feel are a response to actual facts, not just misperceptions. Much as I might wish they might, those frustrations are unlikely to be quelled by a hectoring liberalism. But they may yet be channeled into left-wing or right-wing currents. That, really, is the state of our union, and that is the choice that both parties face this political season. We’ll see which way they choose.