Simply put, President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night gave us America at its best. The occasion presented the public with a rare opportunity to step back from the trees and view the forest. And the forest, we saw, is greener than ever: Obama celebrated a year of formidable economic and social progress and outlined new initiatives on multiple fronts, including community college access, childcare, infrastructure, and tax reform. His narrative of the success of “middle-class economics” was grounded in powerful, indisputable statistics: 11 million jobs created in five years, deficits cut by two-thirds, robust markets, millions of Americans with new health insurance. A sense of promise pervaded his updates on foreign policy as well. His calls to normalize US-Cuba relations and authorize the use of force against ISIS were resolute, suggesting confidence in Congress’s eventual enactment of these measures.

Ending as usual with a lofty reaffirmation of American values and American exceptionalism, he also promised more principled and trustworthy debate in Washington with the catchphrase “a better politics.” Although it is important not to jump to conclusions from this vague and rosy rhetoric, it is also the right time to take the president’s words at face value: a good economy and a wealth of promising social trends have truly begun to cool the tempers of policymakers. Despite all its unfinished work, Washington seems to have found itself in a virtuous cycle.

GOP politicians and pundits aren’t buying the president’s proposals or the notion that his speech transcended political motives. Mitt Romney posted on Facebook, “True to form, the President in his State of the Union speech is more interested in politics than in leadership. More intent on winning elections than on winning progress, he ignores the fact that the country has elected a Congress that favors smaller government and lower taxes.” Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, tweeted, “I’ll save you 45 mins. Obama will decry Republicans, beat up on private business and argue for more ‘free stuff’. Your [sic] welcome.” These are predictable objections that reflect the GOP’s fundamental beliefs. But in light of strong economic growth, there’s little more for Republicans to say in response to the speech than an impassioned reiteration of their platform. On the other hand, the speech itself did much more than just pitch the Democratic agenda. Obama’s main focuses—American progress and potential—lie beyond the reach of partisan wrangling. And he repeatedly foreshadowed a more constructive, bipartisan atmosphere: “I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.” Against such a positive backdrop, Romney’s condemnation of Obama’s leadership and Jindal’s oversimplifications seem inopportune and even distasteful. But true to “a better politics,” the Obama administration should look past the finger-pointing style of GOP discontent, especially on complex issues like the tax code, and discern points of possible compromise.

Critics of the speech should keep in mind its purpose. The State of the Union is first and foremost an address to the American public, not a stage for gaining political leverage. Especially at this late stage in Obama’s presidency, it is simply and ingenuously a report on the broadest range of developing issues and solutions. The speech also invites citizens to go beyond just dinner-table conversations, to take a direct part in affairs. Democrats and Republican viewers alike should listen critically and press their representatives for specifics on policies. The positive civic attitude espoused by Obama’s speech was evident throughout. As we continue to grapple with the many remaining shortcomings of our system, we should be more constructive in our discourse, more confident in Washington’s abilities, and more mindful of an uncontroversial truth: for most, times are as good as they’ve ever been, and they’re going to get even better.

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1 Comment

    I feel as though you might enjoy this piece by the wonderful Charles Pierce.

    That said, while I personally enjoyed Obama’s speech, it is rather frustrating that these policies took six years and the loss of his Democratic majorities to finally come to the table. A lot of important work was done in those two years, reforms to our deeply broken health care system were decades over due, but a lot of these proposals shouldn’t just be political grandstanding and giving Republicans something to say no to. Because lets be honest, how many of these proposals do you honestly expect to get passed?

    Maybe I’m a little jaded, but given the five Republican responses that amounted to a couple of laughable responses from people with no business in government and two impassioned pleas from wannabe presidential candidates that amounted to “please make me the next president”, it’s hard not to see this as playing politics. List off some popular ideas for the Republicans to say no to and leave the Democrats with a good position in 2016.

    I do seriously hope I’m wrong here. I’m a big fan of his most recent actions on the environment, deportations, and Cuba, and I’d love to see him come out swinging and actually get something done about the growing inequality issue. Ya’ know, beyond the latest Republican tactic that seems to be acknowledging that yes it’s a problem and then saying KEYSTONE. But if the only thing that comes out of this newly combative lame-duck president is protecting the American people from the most dangerous Congress that 37% of them have ever elected, I guess I can’t complain too much.

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