Last night’s State of the Union address stood out from the president’s past efforts.
It was less a call for specific policy action than it was a plea for us to see beyond left and right, Democrat and Republican, blue states and red states. The whole thing was reminiscent of the speech President Obama delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and it was awesome.
You can read the entire transcript here, but below are seven of the speech’s highlights.
In the early portion of the president’s speech, he took a moment to focus on the changing nature of the world, urging us to embrace that fact rather than trying to tie progress back to some past version of greatness.
“We live in a time of extraordinary change change thats reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world. Its change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. Its change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.
America has been through big changes before wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the ‘dogmas of the quiet past.’ Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending Americas promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril we emerged stronger and better than before.”
2. “Leadership depends on the power of our example.”
With campaigning for this year’s election in full swing, rhetoric from some of the candidates has bordered on (and sometimes openly embraced) xenophobia. We’ve seen how this plays out, and that cannot be who we are as a nation.
“We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isnt a matter of political correctness. Its a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith. His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I stand tonight that ‘to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.’ When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesnt make us safer. Thats not telling it like it is. Its just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
3. “What was true then can be true now.”
It’s here that the president touches on some of his administration’s big accomplishments namely, the health care law, action taken to make the country less dependent on fossil fuels, and the Supreme Court’s historic marriage equality ruling holding them up as shining examples of progress. It’s all part of the same larger story of who we are as a country.
“Our unique strengths as a nation our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery and innovation, our diversity and commitment to the rule of law these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.
In fact, its that spirit that made the progress of these past seven years possible. Its how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. Its 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.”
4. “We the people.”
This ties back to the core value found right there at the beginning of our constitution “we,” not “I,” not “me,” but “we.” We need to acknowledge that we’re all deserving of human decency, respect, and rights.
“Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words weve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together. That brings me to the fourth, and maybe the most important thing I want to say tonight.
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 doesnt mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. Thats one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.”
5. “Real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need.”
Here’s where the president re-upped his commitment to making sure anybody who wants an education can get an education. It’s a plan he unveiled during last year’s State of the Union address, and at very least, it serves as a reminder of just how hard it is to get anything done in Washington.
“We have to make college affordable for every American. Because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red. Weve already reduced student loan payments to ten percent of a borrowers income. Now, weve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and Im going to keep fighting to get that started this year.
Of course, a great education isnt all we need in this new economy. We also need benefits and protections that provide a basic measure of security. After all, its not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber. For everyone else, especially folks in their forties and fifties, saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher. Americans understand that at some point in their careers, they may have to retool and retrain. But they shouldnt lose what theyve already worked so hard to build.”
6. “It will depend on you.”
This is some vintage Obama. This is the man who made us believe D.C. didn’t have to be what it’s so often seen as; he’s the man who envisioned a world where Democrats and Republicans could come together to solve the country’s big problems. Maybe he was naive, and maybe the rest of us were too, but deep down that hope continues to burn.
“What Im asking for is hard. Its easier to be cynical; to accept that change isnt possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions dont 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 dont look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.
We cant afford to go down that path. It wont 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.”
7. “That’s the America I know.”
The speech’s closing was spoken like the optimistic dreamer of a decade earlier, and not a man who’s faced truly epic Congressional gridlock throughout his eight years in office.
“Thats the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. Thats what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. Thats why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong.”
If there’s a takeaway from the president’s speech, it’s that we cannot let fear win.
There’s a near-apocalyptic feeling coming out of the current campaigns for president. Whether it’s in the form of a politician calling on us to take the country into some past version of “greatness” or general use of doom and gloom type rhetoric, we cannot allow ourselves to sink that far into cynicism. We’re better than that.