(By NCrissie B)
A State of the Union Address is as much ritual as news. From the House doorkeeper’s bellow of “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!” to the handshakes as he approaches the dais, from a recitation of policy proposals to reaction shots of applause or silence, from call-outs of guests with illustrative stories to the concluding “God bless you, and God bless these United States of America,” the traditions of this constitutional duty often overwhelm the ideas presented.
Last night, President Barack Obama delivered the most stirring State of the Union Address of my adult lifetime. I heard three key themes:
“Partners for progress.”
Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, fellow Americans, 51 years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this chamber that “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power, but partners for progress.”
“It is my task,” he said, “to report the state of the union. To improve it is the task of us all.”
This theme of shared duty and responsibility would return throughout his address, from the domestic economy …
It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.
It is – it is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country, the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like or who you love.
It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few, that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.
… to our shared identity as American citizens:
We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.
“We can get this done.”
His next theme was pragmatic, a call for Congress to set aside partisan bickering and do the work of governing:
And I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don’t violate the guarantee of a secure retirement. Our government shouldn’t make promises we cannot keep, but we must keep the promises we’ve already made.
To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and the well-connected. After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks? How is that fair? Why is it that deficit reduction is a big emergency, justifying making cuts in Social Security benefits, but not closing some loopholes? How does that promote growth?
Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.
We can get this done.
President Obama echoed that refrain on high-tech job center hubs (“We can get that done”), rebuilding our infrastructure (“We can get this done”), comprehensive immigration reform (“Now’s the time to get it done”), and transforming the minimum wage into a living wage (“We should be able to get that done”).
While we should not minimize the legislative hurdles, and President Obama is as aware of them as anyone, this confident “can-do” attitude was a refreshing and clear challenge to Republican obstructionism.
“They deserve a vote.”
The president’s most stirring theme came near the end of his speech, when he turned to the issue of gun violence:
Senators – senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they’re tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.
Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress.
Now, if you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote, because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun. More than a thousand.
One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette.
She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend.
Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.
Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.
They deserve a vote.
They deserve a vote.
Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.
The families of Newtown deserve a vote.
The families of Aurora deserve a vote.
The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote.
They deserve – they deserve a simple vote.
That plea for an up-or-down vote on his key gun violence proposals – universal background checks, renewing the assault weapons ban, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines – cast President Obama’s themes of “partners for progress” and “We can get this done” in stirring and stark terms.
Senators and Representatives may and will disagree. Our system of government is premised on reasoned debate, and there are legitimate debates to be had on each of President Obama’s policy proposals. But those debates must happen between leaders who see each other “not as rivals for power but as partners for progress,” recognize that – while government cannot solve every problem – “We can get this done” on many problems when we work together, and don’t duck tough issues but accept the responsibility inherent in “They deserve a vote.”