I was disappointed in President Obama’s final State of the Union address. Though I am generally appreciative of the president, in this instance he did a real disservice to the nation, wasting a key opportunity to acknowledge the true condition of the land, the economy, and the citizens.
How refreshing it would be to hear a factual State of the Union address, where the essential aspects of our collective existence were candidly enumerated, realistically described. Though thoroughly out of fashion, an address so styled would reassure Americans that the president sincerely cared about their pain and discontents, that the guy at the top identified with what they were experiencing. Offering such recognition consistently and in a heartfelt way is only right, given that the prospects of many Americans are shrinking. Particularly imperiled is the prospect that Americans will enjoy personal autonomy and independence: that they will stay free of debt, realize their potential, and, as they mature and grey, have enough to sustain themselves and their families.
Instead of frankly acknowledging the trade-offs that the government constantly makes for the sake of global supremacy and national pride, the President exhorted citizens to ’embrace change’ and take comfort in the fact that ‘The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period,’ and that ‘We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.’ Reasserting the vision that catapulted him to office in the first place (remember Change You Can Believe In?), President Obama urged Americas to have faith in the beneficent nature of change itself. Even as he paid lip service to some of the nation’s glaring problems, his tone remained unduly up-beat and celebratory. In the end, his platitudinous tone made me sad and uneasy.
Contrast his speech with Pope Francis’s somber eloquence when he similarly addressed a joint meeting of Congress last fall. While the pope, too, paid homage to American dreams, his speech stood out for its moral discernment and honesty—the precision with which he outlined the great problems facing America and the world. His observations were at once compassionate and unflinching. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a pope and a president, but, in such a case, the president’s take on the nation comes off as almost callous, as willfully out of sync with the people he leads.
The American Revolution was a revolt against “kingly power,” that, upon succeeding, evolved into a gamble that ordinary people could rule themselves without a monarch. The republican government the Framers devised nonetheless featured a novel office—that of chief executive—who, being the choice of the populace, would function as the nation’s symbolic head for four years’ time. Without some such “people’s sovereign,” the Federalists believed, the new government would have trouble securing the affections and loyalty of the citizenry. The ritual of the inauguration has taken shape around preoccupations like these.
Relative to the pompsurroundingBritishmonarchicalrituals, for instance, American inaugurals are low ceremonies indeed. Since John Adams’s early disastrous experiments in aping the British monarchy, presidents and their families have avoided ostentatious costumes or trappings offensive to democratic sensibilities. Officials take the oath of office wearing ordinary street clothes, allowing the “majesty of the people” to take center stage.
The preference has been strong for an open-air ceremony. George Washington set the tone in 1789 with his swearing-in on the balcony of Federal Hall (then the seat of Congress) in New York City. Though harsh weather has sometimes forced inaugurals inside, their location has generally been selected to allow them to be witnessed by largest possible number of people.
Over time, the inaugural has evolved into a full and appropriately expressive ritual, especially through the device of the inauguration poem (a custom begun and carried on mainly by Democratic presidents) and the performance of American song. In the right hands, the inaugural’s simple components can be coaxed into a whole of considerable beauty and eloquence, as was certainly the case with the inaugural last Monday.
The ceremony was beautifully orchestrated, planned with an understanding of how its elements could combine. From invocation to closing prayer, Obama’s second inaugural presented an aesthetic and patriotic vision of the American essence, receiving its purest expression during James Taylor’s simple rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ on acoustic guitar. At the same time, several complex political messages were effectively conveyed.
1. Ours is an inclusive, multiracial republic.
Visually and verbally, the inaugural moved beyond tokenism to demonstrate the diverse and inclusive character of the US today. The crowd gathered on the Mall, as well as all those with an official part in the proceedings, showed the fruits of the country’s long struggle to make good on its egalitarian principles and dreams. The reality of integration and inclusion was embodied in the faces of the military, in the diverse complexion of officialdom, and in all those clergy, singers, poets, musicians, and orators, who were called on to inspire, entertain, instruct, bless, and thrill us that day.
Coinciding with Martin Luther King Day, the inaugural paid homage to the nation’s centuries-long quest for civil equality, encompassing the struggle to end slavery, extend the franchise, welcome the immigrant, and end archaic practices that are discriminatory. Progress toward these goals, though incomplete and painfully achieved, is evident, and our maturity as a pluralistic country was joyfully ratified on Inauguration Day.
2. Religion is central to American civic life, but not in the way Christian conservatives imagine.
Religious sentiment (of a peculiarly American kind) suffused the inaugural proceedings. Its historic role in inspiring Americans to preserve and strengthen the Union and to persevere in the face of injustice was humbly acknowledged. In the ceremony, religion figured as a fountain that Americans must continue to draw on as they seek to discern the right and the true.
Myrlie Evers-Williams somber invocation and Reverend Luis Leon’s benediction extolled the blessings of religion as a unifying and transcendent force, binding together and uplifting the American people. Driving the point home, the multiracial Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir wowed the crowd with its rendition of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ a Civil War-era song about militant righteousness and Union, written by northern white abolitionist Julia Ward Howe.
Was the inaugural satisfying in part because it sketched the spiritual and patriotic dimensions of the Obamas’ own deep personal faith, a faith that opponents have often assailed, belittled, and misrepresented for the sake of political gain? At the same time, the intense but inclusive spirit of the inaugural seemed a rebuke to the more narrow and divisive Christianity that social conservatives espouse.
3. The condition of the people is the President’s main concern. Maximize their security, happiness, and well-being, and national prosperity will follow.
Jeffersonian thought has been so marginalized in political discourse that commentators hardly recognize its essence today. President Obama’s repeated use of phrases and ideas from the Declaration of Independence in his speech signaled his interest in governing in a Jeffersonian vein. It’s an interesting idea, but what does it mean? For Jefferson, it meant providing a framework for the individual so that the the individual could flourish. Jefferson was not anti-government—he was the architect of many enduring and expansive national projects—but he believed chiefly in that government necessary to protect and promote a prosperous and self-realizing citizenry. When it came to big projects, Jefferson was all about innovation and efficiency.
4. The relationships born of our civic life enjoy a priority over those of corporations or the economy.
Throughout his career, President Obama has sought to reinvigorate the potent role of citizens in political life. David Brooks, though admiring the inaugural address, regretted the president had not devoted more of it to the budget, the markets, the economy, or free enterprise. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that government must be mainly about these. But are these truly the chief interests of a republican government? Are these the interests that need protecting? American business will continue to find a way, whether the Obama administration puts its might behind that project, or not. The president believes that investment in human capital is the chief requisite to making the economy thrive. As if to underscore the point, inaugural poet Richard Blanco offered a lyrical, Whitmanesque view of American work in his spare yet impressive poem, One Today.
5. We are all citizens, and, as citizens, must fulfill certain transcendent obligations consonant with the great power reposed in us.
The best part of the president’s speech was its conclusion. Pointing to oath-taking as a unifying ritual, the President likened his oath to others we have taken, whether as schoolchildren, government officials, new citizens, or members of the military. The promises we make to our country bind us together in a way that transcends the claims of self-interest and party. The president closed with an appeal to each of us to continue to make our voices heard.
The conventions are over, leaving me satisfied that our democratic traditions are alive and kicking. The parties have some liabilities—the Republicans’ more evident than the Democrats’—but I found it hard not to get excited about the strenuous, face-to-face character of the political action and oratory.
Blatant lies marred Paul Ryan’s otherwise impressive speech, leaving Ann Romney to claim the palm as the Republicans’ best speaker. She was not just interesting and animated; she did a masterful job of recasting her husband’s character, inadvertently proving that she’s a much better stump-speaker than he.
The Democrats not only had better hats and sexierwomen (let’s admit it: we all notice); their speakers were more thrilling, and their delegates more engaged and visually interesting. Democratic delegates were a real force in the proceedings, unlike their Republican counterparts, who, when they bothered to fill their seats, spent their time texting or listening warily with folded arms. I loved the Democratic delegates’ orchestrated use of placards.
As for the Democratic speakers, they offered resounding proof of the health of their party. San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former presidential nominee John Kerry were all standouts, topped only by Bill Clinton, whose ability at once to enlighten and entertain is far superior to anybody’s.
Besides the political import of the convention, it was a treat to hear so many fine modern speeches that were by turns colloquial, fiery, affecting, and funny. Though Democrats still have much work to do ideologically, it was good to see them working successfully as a body to reassert the basic values of fairness and equal opportunity.
All images are screenshots from PBS coverage of the Democratic National Convention.