President Obama on the State of the Union
by Playthell Benjamin
President Obama leaves the Washington scene as he entered: A brilliant and humane visionary promoting policies that will benefit Americans and the world. In his final State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress, he has never been clearer or more forceful in stating that vision; indeed he was Solomonic in his wisdom about the human condition at the dawn of the twenty first century.
In an oration that combined a relaxed demeanor with soaring eloquence, he was both the gifted politician and erudite professor tutoring us on the facts of his achievements as President, which by any objective standard is a sterling record admired around the world, and presenting a detailed vision of where the nation must go now… what is to be done.
It is the task of this essay to conduct a content analysis of his presentation and consider some of the critical questions addressed by the President as the end of his historic presidency draws nigh; the full significance of which will be the subject of lively discussion among historians a hundred years hence. Since journalism is considered “the first draft of history” by professional historians, this is my contribution to the discussion.
Barack was showered with kisses from the ladies as he made his way to the podium in the grand entrance that marks the opening of this annual Joint Session of Congress, convened for the special purpose of hearing the President report on the condition of our nation. After a brief introduction by a stiff, stone faced, Paul Ryan – whose position as Speaker of the House required him to speak well of the President, although his demeanor was that of a circus performer who holds his nose and kisses a pig because it’s a critical part of his act – Obama began his report on the State of the Union. With a bit of humor to break the ice, he quickly put the GOP reactionaries at ease by giving props to their Speaker.
It was textbook perfect, the way all the instructional manuals on public speaking tell you how to do it. And it disarmed them, nullifying their hostilities for the moment.
“Tonight marks the eighth year I’ve come here to report on the State of the Union. And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.” Said the president with a chuckle; referring to the presidential primary race. Then he offered an olive branch to Speaker Ryan: “I also understand that because it’s an election season, expectations for what we’ll achieve this year are low. Still, Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the constructive approach you and the other leaders took at the end of last year to pass a budget and make tax cuts permanent for working families.”
Having acknowledged the rare occasion when Congressional members of the Grand Obstructionist Party worked constructively with him in conducting the people’s business as they were elected to do; the President optimistically noted,” So I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse. We just might surprise the cynics again.” Hence in the space of eight and a half lines President Obama expressed humor, grace and hope; an excellent way to open a speech to a chamber half filled with venomous Republican adversaries spoiling for a fight.
The president went on to further demonstrate his mastery of political polemics by cleverly stating his agenda succinctly while disavowing his intent:
“But tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead. Don’t worry; I’ve got plenty, from helping students learn to write computer code to personalizing medical treatments for patients. And I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing: Fixing a broken immigration system; protecting our kids from gun violence; Equal pay for equal work; paid leave, raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families; they are still the right thing to do; and I will not let up until they get done.”
Having gotten his basic list of things to do in the short run on the record, the President assumed the role of visionary humanist, a role in which he excels over any previous occupant of the Oval Office. And here, he was clear in his purpose. “But for my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to talk just about the next year. I want to focus on the next five years, ten years, and beyond. I want to focus on our future.” President Obama pointed out that we are living in the most dynamic period in human history, a time when massive changes in the structure and function of human societies are changing at warp speed, and discussed the implications of this mass transformation in human societies:
“We live in a time of extraordinary change — change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world. It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”
As with much of what he had to say in his final State of the Union speech, this astute analysis was clearly directed at the “conservative” anti-science, racist, sexist, Neanderthals in the Grand Obstructionist Party; those deluded “American Exceptionalists” who think they can arrest progress by ignoring the revelations of science and who seek refuge in comfortable myths about “the good old days” when men were men, families were modeled after Adam and Eve “not Adam and Steve,” God was on America’s side, father knew best and white was right! Those sad old white who folks go around muttering about “taking our country back!” To these lost souls Barack offered the following dose of reality:
“America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the “dogmas of the quiet past.” Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before. What was true then can be true now. Our unique strengths as a nation — our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery and innovation, our diversity and commitment to the rule of law — these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.”
Witnessing the upbeat character of Barack’s presentation, the careful observer could not miss the difference between his heroic optimism regarding America’s potential and the grim visage and defeatist body language of the Republican members of Congress. These people, who never tire of referencing Ronald Reagan as their patron saint, had allowed Barack Obama to claim the high ground and announce the coming of new morning in America. Furthermore, unlike Reagan, who was painting pictures of a glorious future that he was promising to bring into being, Barack Obama was referencing the forces of progress that he had already unleashed by virtue of his policies. Actual deeds…not mere words, accomplishments not empty braggadocio. I hope the Democratic presidential candidates were paying close attention, because herein lies the formula for victory in the coming Presidential election. They must not repeat the folly of Al Gore by not claiming Barack’s victories and Democratic victories and running on them.
Indeed, the most powerful part of the president’s speech was when he claimed his record and stood on it; a magnificent record of achievement that no Republican President can match save perhaps Abraham Lincoln, who presided over a very different Republican Party. Alas, the only connection the present generation of Republicans has to Lincoln is their fondness for LincolnContinentals,which would have gone the way of the dinosaurs and ceased to exist if not for the bold intervention of President Obama to save the US auto industry….a move which the Grand Obstructionist Party vigorously opposed!
This is irrefutable evidence that the Grand Obstructionist Party cannot govern; addicted to a “free market” theology which allowed Wall Street to go wild with reckless financial schemes, they wrecked the economy and then did everything they could to obstruct President Obama’s policies for preventing a worldwide depression and restoring a dying economy to health, for their picayune partisan reasons. This is a matter of historical fact.
As if striking a dagger through the heart of his Republican antagonists and twisting it, or breaking his foot off in their ass – President Obama recited the undeniable achievements of his Administration:
“Let me start with the economy, and a basic fact: the United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the ’90s; an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever. Manufacturing has created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years. And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters.”
Then he provided the raw numbers as evidence of the scope of the progress that has occurred under his leadership, which are staggering:
I-14.1 million new private sector jobs over 70 straight months of jobs growth
II – The unemployment rate is lower than it’s been in more than 7 years
III – The deficit has been cut by nearly three fourths since 2009
IV – American manufacturers have added nearly 900,000 jobs over the past 6 years
After citing the evidence to the contrary the Prez declared with a snide and defiant smile – what hip black folk call an IDGAF – I don’t give A F….! – Smile, declared: “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” Yet despite his recitation of these impressive statistics measuring economic progress, President Obama is not claiming that we have reached an economic Nirvana, nor does he make any attempt to fudge the facts about the economic challenges facing the American people in the future.
Rather, in characteristic fashion, and to his credit, he not only enumerates the major problems but offer solutions to them that could be implemented as policy if his adversaries were as enlightened, compassionate and well intentioned as himself. Finding the solutions to complex problems starts with asking the right questions and I believe that the President summed up the major problems facing the US in four questions:
“First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”
The reader can hear the President’s full speech simply by clicking on the link at the bottom of this essay; it was one of the best speeches that I have heard from an American President, and I would bet my bottom dollar that it is one of the greatest State of the Union orations in American history.
The stony silence of the Republicans, in the face of such a magnificent record of achievement against tremendous odds – restoring the economy and ending to protracted wars overseas, salvaging the lives of young people who were being physical and mentally devastated in a criminal Republican war of choice, ending the hemorrhage of American blood and treasure – exposed them as morally deformed empty ideologues.
All but the ignorant and evil could readily see that the Republicans are intellectual and moral midgets compared to the president. Of course, beyond the ideological stance they have taken, and are held accountable for by the untutored mob that is their base, they couldn’t applaud President Obama’s accomplishments because they were achieved in spite of the persistent and disloyal opposition of the Republicans. Hence Barack’s achievements signal the failure of these partisan efforts; short sighted amoral folly has placed the fate of the earth second to their political ambitions – evil on steroids!
The careful observer, who could identify the principal players in the tragic political comedy of errors that masquerades as serious politics among Republicans, could not fail to be intrigued trying to read the facial expressions and body language of Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of The House, as he introduced the President to the Nation before he spoke, and all during his brilliant and moving hour long speech.
For much of the speech Ryan looked like he was fighting the urge to poop in his pants. For among the things he was surely thinking is that he must not anger his racist yahoo base by appearing to show a proper respect for the “Nigger” in the White House. Yet Ryan is no fool, and thus like all vain men who know they will one day be evaluated by impartial historians that will have the last word about their official legacy, he wants to conduct himself in ways that will not prohibit historians being kind to him. After all, his grandchildren will one day read their books, and he doesn’t want them hiding their faces in shame when they learn that he obstructed efforts to prevent climate change.
Furthermore, there were so many brilliant ideas and bright moments of extraordinary insights in President Obama’s speech that Ryan could not resist marveling at his mastery of the art of political oratory in much the same way that saxophone players responded when they heard Charlie “Yardbird” Parker play. No matter what they said about his playing, and many felt genuinely threated because Bird was assaulting their conventional wisdom about how Jazz was to be played and making them sound obsolete, in their hearts they knew he was their superior and the music he was playing was the sound of the future!
Congressman Ryan is a practicing Catholic, and as such he is taught that the Pope is infallible in his judgements; he has even tried to claim that his backward ideas about economic policy are rooted in catholic teaching. Yet the Pope has rejected Ryan’s ideas and embraced those of President Obama’s! This is because, as was noted in the Huffington Post in an essay by Reverend John Pavlovitz, “Rather than being the kind of showy, loud but largely loveless noise in the world that the Apostle Paul warns believers against becoming, the President’s time in the White House has yielded the kind of tangible fruit Jesus said would be the mark of the true person of God.”
The Reverend proceeds to enumerate the president’s deeds, which are always more credible than mere words; anybody can talk a good game. But as Reverend Pavlovitz shows: Barack Obama walks the walk, rather than just talk the talk, like those verbose bible thumping Republicans who rarely practice what they preach. Unless he is a complete lying hypocrite, to be rejected by his spiritual father in favor of a man that his party denies is even a Christian, has to trouble Ryan deep in his soul.
Ryan would also love to be President, but when he ran as Vice President to Mitt Romney they were roundly defeated by Obama. Hence no matter what stance he is compelled to take publicly, in his heart and mind he cannot but wish that he had Obama’s political gifts. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ryan announced that he was switching parties, after former Speaker of the House John Boehner quit his office and left Congress after a private audience with the Pope on his visit to Washington!
Although I advance this only as a suspicion: I believe the Pope told Boehner that he was risking having his immortal soul confined to hell if he continued his nefarious deeds, placing the imperatives of the plutocrats over the injunction of Jesus Christ to “feed the hungry and heal the sick” by cutting food stamps and trying to repeal Obamacare. That would explain why a man at the pinnacle of power high-tailed it out of that decadent evil Babylon which is the Republican-controlled Congress, and the “Weeper of the House” has not been heard from since.
Perhaps Ryan, who often strikes me as the personification of the Devil, will have an epiphany and see the error of his ways. He sure looked like he was experiencing some sort of internal crisis as he listened to President Obama’s speech which, after all, contained both enlightened ideas and indisputable truths. But that hope was dashed after reading Ryan’s comments to USA Today following the speech Ryan said:
“I thought it was a fairly typical speech for the president,” Ryan said. “Apparently ISIS is a bunch of guys riding around in trucks and a picture of a good foreign policy is Syria. I think he glossed over the economy. I think he glossed over our foreign-policy failures.” Later he said, “That’s the kind of speech he gives these days, and I think it really is divorced from reality.”
The obvious question raised by that comment is: Can the Speaker of the House be as childish and stupid as he sounds? I believe that Ryan, like all of the spineless opportunists terrified of the wrath of their backward base, plays to the prejudices of these impassioned morons…yet in his heart and mind he does know better. The truth be told they all know better, but the Republicans that presently control Congress cannot admit it, because the only weapon they have to combat the outsized legacy of President Obama, a legacy of monumental achievements on behalf of the American people that cannot be factually refuted, is to cultivate the the blind hatred of the untutored racist mob that is their base.
Keeping that base ignorant and angry is especially critical just now, when the Presidential election is only months away. Although the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner with these hysterical mooks they are fundamental to the fulfilment of the GOP agenda; a pro-plutocrat anti-worker, anti-woman program.
Hence they must fire up “low information voters” so that their passions will overwhelm reason and prevent the election of another Democratic president who will defend and extend the progressive policies of President Obama. However Barack envisions another America; it is a vision filled with the heroic optimism that put him in the oval office twice. He sums up his vision at the end of this oratorical tour de force thusly:
“…. the America I know….the country we love. Clear-eyed, big-hearted, optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That’s why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong.”
Benjamin is a veteran political journalist out of Harlem NY. His essays can be read on his blog site Commentaries on the Times.