Our sad state

With regard to politics I consider myself something of an agnostic, maybe even apolitical, and so I did not watch President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address last week live; nor did most people, and so the speech received the worst ratings of any State of the Union address over the past 14 years. Of the major networks, FoxNews was the only one that drew in more viewers than it did last year. And judging from the comments posted beneath the transcript of the speech on the FoxNew website, which called the speech a pile of lies and a pile of worse, that network’s viewers were not entirely inspired by the rhetoric of the President’s speech. Then again, neither was anyone else.

But perhaps I ought to have at least watched, if not sympathetically. One thing more frightening than the loud partisanship by which our Washington has of late been defined is political apathy; if we do not care enough to listen, or if we listen only so that we can take target practice on a leader we deem flailing and impotent, how strong can the state of our union really be?

The speech itself is a valuable thing, in theory: it is set up as a diagnostic, an institutionalized moment of self-inspection that marks the beginning and end of the political year. How are we doing? Who are we now? With these questions in mind, Obama ran through the expected catalogue of domains and topics, from poverty to energy, education to nuclear proliferation.

And indeed there was much in the speech with which one could disagree. He proposed to raise the minimum wage—can we afford it? He proposed to further reduce our presence in the Middle East—might it serve everyone better to stay? These are questions we all can and should ask.

But Obama’s speech contained another element, a far more important one. In addition to the language of business and partisan politics, he also spoke clearly in the idiom of the American character. He began his speech with a series of particular images, familiar from Obama’s repertoire, but also part of the national consciousness—the teacher, the entrepreneur, the autoworker, the farmer, the doctor, the fallen soldier. He later wrote himself into that narrative, noting that “the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth,” as well as his political rival John Boehner, whose father was a barkeeper.

He urged us in the end to momentarily put aside frustration and discouragement and “place our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress.” These phrases may not hold much water, sure, and they translate poorly into policy, but Obama’s speech nonetheless conjured up what we might call the American identity, based on our history, if in fact such things are relevant to us now.

It is to this type of speech in particular that we have all grown somewhat deaf. The whole notion of a “speech” feels somewhat outdated, just at a moment in time when more people than ever have the technology to access it. Perhaps we would rather Obama send us the main points in 140 characters or less.

In one important moment, Obama reflected on diplomacy and its role in avoiding conflict abroad. With it, he said, Israel and Palestine might find peace, and Iran might “rejoin the community of nations.” “If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union,” he said, “then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”

With that sentence he raised, perhaps unwittingly, the crucial question: how much are the words of an American president worth? Obama’s predecessors on both sides of the political spectrum were powerful because they spoke powerfully: their audiences submitted themselves to their language, and we can remember their words even now (“Ask not…” and “Mr. Gorbachev…”). Likewise, we see the Obama of today as impotent, because we refuse to be moved by even his most potent rhetoric. And if we do not reward the politicians who speak well, we may ultimately favor only those who act boldly. If talking cannot mend, acts of war might—and we might not mind.

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