When Americans are in a sour mood, leaders have a difficult decision to make. They can give in to temptation, stoke people’s fears and anxiety, and try to exploit the public’s distress for their own partisan or ideological goals. Alternatively, they can aim higher, offer a hopeful message, appeal to Americans’ better angels.
Republican presidential candidates have made their choice, and they’re eagerly telling the public to be terrified. The American dream is dying or dead, they’re arguing. Existential threats lurk in the shadows, they’re coming to get you, and every bit of good news should be ignored or overwhelmed by a sense of dread.
President Obama, whose national profile has always been defined by a belief in “hope and change,” used his final State of the Union address to tell Americans an important message they don’t often hear: forget the gloom and doom, because it’s just not true.
“[I]t’s that spirit that made the progress of these past seven years possible. It’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. It’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector; how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans, and how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love. […]“[T]he 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. Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction. […]“I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead – they call us.”
For all the mindless chatter about “making America great again,” last night was an opportunity to hear a leader make a powerful case that such talk is unnecessary – because America is already great.
There is a risk that a president delivering a hopeful, optimistic message will seem out of touch, but there’s early evidence that Americans were impressed with what they heard last night. CNN released an overnight poll that found 53% had a “very positive” reaction to the State of the Union address, while another 20% had a somewhat positive reaction. A 68% majority said the policies Obama proposed “would move the country in the right direction.”
Results like these come with important caveats – many of the president’s critics simply don’t tune in – but it nevertheless suggests the hopeful rhetoric landed on fertile soil.
Of course, last night’s speech wasn’t just appealing to better angels, and it overlooked the usual laundry list of proposals that usually define SOTU addresses. Instead, Obama looked forward, challenging Americans to consider future challenges. Perhaps the most important part of the speech came at the end, when the president insisted that our politics must change.
“The future we want – opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids – all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.“It will only happen if we fix our politics.“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything…. But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.“Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.“But, my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task – or any President’s – alone…. If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a Congressman or a Senator or even a President; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves…. Changes in our political process – in not just who gets elected but how they get elected – that will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.“What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.“We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”
As Americans consider who the president’s successor should be, it’s a message voters would be wise to keep in mind.