I myself thought the speech was well-calibrated and appropriately conciliatory, given the circumstance to which we have been driven by the toxic mix of ignorance and ideology that has dominated our political discourse. The tone and substance of the speech were perfectly concordant with what we have come to expect from a man who does not regard compromise as capitulation; who agrees with the proposition in JFK's famous inauguration speech, that "civility is not a sign of weakness"; and who offers a pragmatic, rational understanding of what it is possible to achieve. That his speech managed to do so without sacrificing the obligatory celebration of America's greatness and strength was, I thought, pretty remarkable.
I admit it. I myself find it hard to locate a remaining shred of optimism in my heart for a country that seems hell-bent on self-immolation. I look to the right of our political spectrum and find no moderation, no rational discussion of the increasingly thorny issues we face in our social and political life, no openness to different views. I see only entrenched ideological posturing, the reiteration of meaningless cliches, and hatred--hatred, I believe, is not too strong a word--for a President who continues to reach out to his opponents in a good faith attempt to work toward solutions for some of our problems. It seems that the sole agenda on the right is exactly what Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell famously said it should be: to bring the President down, no matter the cost to the country.
I was happy that Obama did not shrink from a clear affirmation on the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Many of us were distressed by the lame-duck session compromise, but the President made it clear last night that he plans to revisit this anomaly. However, as the New York Times lead editorial suggested this morning,
letting high-end tax breaks expire won’t raise enough revenue to pay for needed investments or reduce long-term deficits. Mr. Obama proposed to simplify both the corporate income tax and the personal income tax, but he did not call for raising other taxes. Americans may not want to hear that taxes have to go up, but until Mr. Obama and other political leaders are willing to say so, credible deficit reduction will remain out of reach.
At a time when we need to invest in our future in the ways the President eloquently outlined, Republicans have their knives out. They are targeting (among other things, once again!) the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. And, of course, education. Forget about essential services like police and fire departments, national parks, justice... Talk about job-killing! But as Paul Krugman points out in a current blog entry, in a comment on Congressman Paul Ryan's Republican response to the President's address, "government spending is dominated by the big 5: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and interest payments; you can’t make a significant dent in the deficit without either raising taxes or cutting those big 5." If we're committed to what Obama described as the "need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," we'll need to either swallow an increase in the deficit--or raise taxes, and not just on the rich.
It's unclear when, if ever, Americans will be ready for any real sacrifice. It is clear, however, that sacrifice will be necessitated at some point by circumstance, if it is not consciously chosen and planned for. I myself would have wished for the President to have acknowledged this reality more openly in last night's address; in evoking the "Sputnik moment"--a moment when Americans might have been called upon, once again, to "pay any price, bear any burden"--he created an opportunity that his speech failed to exploit.
The tone of the speech was in keeping with the much-touted amicable seating arrangements in the audience. Until the rousing peroration, there was a modesty and civility about it that was echoed in the comparatively subdued response: no loud cheers, no prolonged standing ovations. The President did not court the usual flattery, nor did he receive it. He settled his audience down quickly to listen to his words and left, at the end, without haste, but also without dallying at length to bask in congratulation. It was, to my mind, well done. A glove was thrown down, along with the offer of mutual collaboration. We'll see whether that glove will be picked up by his opponents with civil intention, or whether (as regrettably in the past) it will simply be thrown back rudely in his face.