President Obama’s final State of the Union address was more about the way the nation should be rather than the way it is. The president of hope and change put hope for change above the need to confront conditions as they are.
Many welcomed the president’s call for a nation united in purpose and engaged in politics based on mutual respect and common civility. That is an honorable summons, especially in a presidential election year in which the leading GOP candidates have stoked fears, nursed resentments and condoned prejudice.
Obama has long tried to appeal to the nation’s better instincts, but he has failed in dispersing its worst. He admitted that much. He said it was among his few regrets that he, a president of mixed race who climbed the rungs of American opportunity, could not ease the nation’s political polarization. Indeed, his opponents have used his every action and his very presence in the White House as flash points for deepening the divide and strengthening their power to obstruct Obama’s agenda.
Political positions based on alienation, misinformation and paranoia were once confined to fringe groups. Now such thinking is overtaking the Republican Party itself. This politics already has wrought great damage. It has produced a Congress incapable of addressing the economic well-being of ordinary people and meeting the extraordinary challenges of climate change, immigration and America’s epidemic of gun violence. It is a political divide that expands a yawning income divide between the many who are struggling and the very few who take an ever rising share of the nation’s wealth.
“Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise or when even basic facts are contested or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention,” Obama said.
Despite those who reflexively oppose him, Obama has accomplished a great deal. The passage of the Affordable Care Act was a landmark achievement that gave millions of Americans access to regular health care and protection from overwhelming medical debt. It also helps offset worsening income inequality.
And the nation should be grateful for what Obama has not let happen. He kept the United States out of an economic depression and out of wars. Those preventions may be his greatest accomplishments.
But what Obama was slow to realize and then too cautious in addressing was that his country was being split by people who cultivate and exploit division. In the place where that poisonous politics prompted a congressman to yell at him, “You lie,” Obama should have told the truth about the costs and the dangers of extremism. That means more than a general call for civility and civic involvement. It means directly challenging those who have abused democracy to create gridlock and divide the United States. That damaging disunion, sadly, is the state of the union.