Wednesday, February 25, 2009

State of the Union

Expectations were high as the nation awaited the first address by the new president on the state of the Union. For two years, since the start of his campaign to become president, Barack Obama has come to be defined by his excellent oratorical skill. At every major speech he gives, he is expected to surpass the eloquence and substance of the last. Beyond that, the historicity of having the first black president of the United States only lends to the importance of the event.

Pundits across the ideological spectrum gave their opinions on what the president needed to achieve tonight. From avoiding the appearance of "winging it", to having a more upbeat attitude about the country's prospects than he has in recent weeks, to providing details and specifics on how he intends to lead this country out of the recession in which it finds itself, the expectations just kept rising in the hours leading up to his speech. One pundit even characterized the fact of his African American heritage as an "afterthought" in the wake of these current straits. Surely, no one could hope that this country would fail just so that the new president would; but surely, only few could tune in to the address completely confident that both would succeed.

For this writer, that feeling of confidence was always somewhere at the back of my mind. As Governor Bobby Jindal said later in the evening, I believe that Americans can do anything. Still, it is always a comfort to hear that sentiment echoed by the president of the United States. I first heard Barack Obama speak on Larry King Live two years ago this month, and it occurred to me that evening that he would make a good president. I didn't always believe it during the election season; I had my candidate, who represented my values (and it wasn't John McCain). At some point during the State of the Union address, though, I remembered why I had that feeling the first time I heard Barack Obama.

The president had a number of issues to address; a new administration always does. During the campaign, he made a number of promises in all areas of foreign and domestic policy, and many of the expectations centered on whether he would renew his commitment to keep those promises. New presidents often break promises, and it is often in the State of the Union that you expect to learn whether he will or not. One issue had priority in this speech, though, and every topic related to this issue: the country's economic future. Energy independence, health care, education, and even the military were addressed only as they pertained to the state of the economy.

In part, certainly, to keep the tone of his speech optimistic as opposed to his recent, in the words of one pundit, "doom and gloom" attitude, President Obama said that he would not bring up another list of statistics. The impact of the recession, he reminds us, is felt everywhere; if not by us, then by someone we know. He pledged to rebuild, to recover, and that the United States of America would emerge stronger than before. His central theme was one of confidence despite calamity, of trust in the face of trials. He told the American people that he "get[s] it", and that he will do what is necessary, not what is popular, to reverse this economic downturn.

"Our economy did not fall into decline overnight", he reminds us. We have failed, not just over the last few years but the last few decades, to deal with the coming problems. A "day of reckoning" has arrived, and now is the time for hard work and hard choices. He reminds us that, in the midst of the Civil War, the country built railroads; in the wake of world wars, we invested and brought about the GI Bill. Crises are opportunities for greatness, as another pundit summed it up in the wake of the speech, and the president asks for our support as he proposes and even demands legislation from Congress that will address important issues facing this country.

There were specifics in his speech, as many hoped there would be. For each of his plans, it seemed that he asked a sacrifice of someone; not just the American people at large, but from every individual and group. It brought to mind the phrase made famous by President Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country." I don't have room in this blog to list all of the proposed legislation and programs, or the reactions of news anchors, pundits, or lawmakers. Suffice to say, his plans were bold, if some were expected, and even as he asked for sacrifices, he did so with the promise that if we act together we can build "something worthy to be remembered".

Governor Jindal of Louisiana offered the Republican Response to the president's speech. As he spoke, it was clear that both men believed in the same things: love of country is most important, sacrifice is required for worthy achievement, and of course, that Americans can do anything. They both also believe that action, immediate and appropriate, is required to restore this country to its place as a world leader in the 21st century. Their only differences were on matters of policy. The president leaned more towards faith in government, while Governor Jindal placed more faith in the initiative of the American people themselves to solve these problems. It is a philosophical divide that I don't think anyone expects to be bridged by speeches alone. Both men spoke of the need to work together to solve our problems and it is my sincere hope that they, and we, are always willing, able, and motivated to do just that.

I actually do feel more confident about the future of this country after hearing the president and the governor speak. They do not hold a monopoly, or even a duopoly, on good ideas or love of this country. I believe we all love America and want her to succeed. We have good men and women to lead us, but we cannot sit idly by and wait for them to save us. We must answer their collective call to action. Speeches don't change the world; what we do after we've heard those speeches does. Now let us all go out and change the world.

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