A Dreadful State of the Union, Redeemed

Professor Ubertaccio has been dismissive of the value of the modern State of the Union speech here, here, and here so in the spirit of cranky academic brotherhood let me point out some ugly moments and one good one in  this year’s SOTU by President Barack Obama.  

Obama often skillfully weaves phrases taken from Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings into his own work. He failed this time. Early in the SOTU he twice used the phrase “It is our unfinished task”, which to these Lincoln-loving ears invokes these words from the Gettysburg Address: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Sorry but “unfinished task” was awful. It sounded like punch list items you want your contractor to finish on a bathroom renovation.

One of the unfinished tasks is to restore the American Dream – “the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

“Who you love?” When did that get in there? It might belong in the SOTU – the president used the idea much more effectively in placing Stonewall solidly within the civil rights movement in the Second Inaugural – but as the common understanding of the American Dream – no. And this is a great failure of the modern SOTU: it is a laundry list with every agency and every interest battling to get a line into the SOTU, if it fits or not.

I thought it was wonderful when, describing the heroic actions of a police officer at the Sikh temple shootings, the president praised the officer for protecting the “safety of the Americans inside.” In the very next paragraph, the second to last in the speech, the president said “But as Americans, we all share the same proud title – we are citizens.” That is a reminder of the classical notion we should carry forward of our responsibilities in a democracy. But just a few paragraphs before that, in discussing why chiefs of police favor gun control, the president said “they’re tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.” “Guys and gals” – it is infantilizing the language to us – the citizens. Ugh.

Cranky academic that I am one of the things I detest about the State of the Union is that it is a television production and not a time to present ideas. It’s a time to give some skin to interests. And it’s a time to place local heroes strategically in the audience so the camera can catch them applauding the president.

But as he often does, President Obama saved an otherwise dreadful performance by his extraordinary repeated call for Congress to vote on gun control. Nate and Cleo Pendleton, parents of Hadiya. Gabby Giffords. The families of Newtown. The families of Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, and Blacksburg, countless others. “They deserve a vote. They deserve a simple vote.”

They deserve a vote.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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