On Tuesday, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address. By any measure, it will be a defining moment. The speech will either usher in the second half of a one term presidency wracked by partisanship and increasingly lambasted by its own base for losing control of the debate to a re-energized conservatism; or it will presage political rebirth, a reconnection with voters, and the beginning of a successful re-election campaign.
In the build-up to the speech, Obama has indicated that he will focus on jobs, on business competitiveness, and other policy areas where he hopes to find common ground with the Republicans. There are reports that he’ll aim for a "centrist" political message.
That’s probably true. But what’s crucial is that the president doesn’t neglect the more abstract, philosophical questions. The questions about what sort of a society we are and what sort of a community we want to be. In fact, more so than at any time since the presidential election, the moral tone of his speech – and of speeches to come – will be more important than many of the policy particulars.
True, new political realities, post mid-terms, mandate a new political tack from Obama. One can argue whether he won enough in the dealings with Republicans back in December to justify extending Bush’s tax cuts for the super-wealthy -- and one can certainly debate the wisdom of massively expanding estate tax exemptions -- but clearly, on the topic of taxation, the president had to make some gestures to the new Congress. One can support an assertive role by government regulatory agencies and still understand the president’s reasoning in offering oratorical fig-leafs about the need to streamline regulations. One can wish for more stimulus spending and still conclude that politics dictates the president emphasize deficit reduction more than he did in the first two years of his presidency.
But what the new realities don’t mandate is for the president to back down regarding the moral core underpinning his administration’s original promise.
Quite the contrary. When one looks at recent polling numbers, one sees an opening for Obama to reclaim the moral high ground -- ground he captured in the years leading up to his election and ground that he has, if anything, been far too cautious in defending in the years since.
From 2004-2008, Obama connected with a cross section of Americans better than any other political figure precisely because he articulated a vision of governance that was moral rather than political, that played to core values rather than utilizing gimmicks to score cheap points. In his rhetoric, he tapped into a rich tradition of moral politics running from early abolitionists through to suffragettes, from workers’ rights advocates through to civil rights campaigners and environmentalists. That rhetoric had always spoken to America’s better angels, urging Americans to cast aside momentary differences and build up a sense of empathy, a sense of understanding of the needs, the aspirations, and the hardships, of fellow human beings. Partly utopian, partly intensely pragmatic – the country has always best succeeded economically, socially, diplomatically, when it nurtures these values – that empathic strain has been one of America’s most unique contributions on the global stage.
From his "one America" speech at the Democratic national convention in 2004 through to his speech on race in Philadelphia in the spring of 2008, from his extraordinary victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park in November of that year to his inauguration speech, following days of charged, symbolic pageantry, two months later, Barack Obama spoke of the need to tap into core, unifying values.
What set candidate Obama apart in 2008 ought to set him apart again in 2011. Yes, Obama has had a rough year on many fronts. But, despite all the anxiety and all the noise crowding into the political process from the margins, one of the surprises in polling numbers is that he remains far and away the most popular national political figure – beating out all his own party’s Congressional leadership, the GOP’s Congressional leadership, as well as outsider figures such as Sarah Palin.
Over the last six weeks, in fact, Obama’s popularity has rebounded. In part this is because he managed to wring some pretty important legislation out of the supposedly lame-duck Congressional session. In part it is because of the awful events in Tucson; the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and numerous other victims created a sense of national mourning and provided the president with an opening to portray himself once again as a unifying, healing leader. And, in part, I would suggest, it is because he still comes off as representing more reasonable, more unifying, values than do his political opponents.
Last week, the New York Times and CBS released polling data on how Americans – and, more specifically, Americans with varying political affiliations – prioritized taxes versus government spending. Two numbers, in particular, jumped out: the first was that, despite all the hoopla about how the country as a whole is overwhelmingly hostile to any attempts to increase taxes to preserve services, in fact it’s disproportionately a Republican issue. Fully 42 percent of self-described Democrats said they would support tax increases on people like themselves (not on other people, which is how Republicans portray Democrats’ approach to taxation) to preserve government programs. By contrast, only 11 percent of Republicans said they’d tolerate a tax increase on people like themselves.
The second number is even more revealing. When asked which domestic programs to cut first in order to reduce government spending, an astounding thirty two percent of Republicans, compared to only 13 percent of Democrats, said they’d cut aid to the unemployed and poor.
In an era of wholesale unemployment, and savage economic dislocation, of mass home foreclosures and staggering increases in reliance on food stamps and other programs intended to prevent people spiraling into total destitution, that polling data suggests an empathy gap of stunning proportions. Put simply, the GOP and a significant bloc of the party’s base are abandoning any pretense at representing a one America vision. They are putting forward a set of political, and by extension moral, priorities that play to our demons rather than our better angels, to fear rather than hope.
Obama should use the State of the Union address to reassert his moral vision of what America is and what America can one day be, to again challenge Americans to dream of better tomorrows. The Republicans are giving him ample opportunity; he ought, like Franklin Roosevelt three quarters of a century ago, to take advantage.