Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Obama's passionate pragmatism

Obama has always presented himself as both pragmatist and idealist, projecting faith that if we "uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government" we will make incremental progress toward audacious goals: a new age of broadly shared prosperity, plentiful sustainable energy, affordable health care, nuclear weapons reduction (and ultimately eradication), an end to global poverty, arrested global warming.  In tonight's SOTU, he wedded the pragmatism and the idealism powerfully, reasoning with understated passion, shouting less than in his inaugural but building to a powerful climax of moral exhortation as he invoked Newtown, recapturing also the balanced cadences and grammatical parallelism that marked his speeches in 2008.

Obama's repeated plea to the nation tonight was to face reality: his tone was relentless reasonability. He spoke with a distilled fluency of a man who has been articulating the same values and proposing essentially the same policies (excepting gun control)* for six years on the national stage and now speaks with the knowledge that through several permutations and waves of oppositional hysteria he has still has (or has regained) a majority with him on the big stuff.  And so he argued, not only as if he were himself convinced but convinced that we are convinced: Deficit reduction has to be balanced. Undocumented immigrants have to be offered a path to citizenship as part of comprehensive immigration reform. The nation has to invest in the pillars of shared prosperity: alternative energy, education, infrastructure. Climate change is real and wreaking havoc.  The level of gun violence we live with is insane. Everyone has a right to vote without standing in line for five, six, seven hours. As he said with respect to immigration reform: "we know what needs to be done."

Here are a few of the reality checks -- arguments delivered with a "who can dispute it?" mien:
 Most Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity. They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share.
The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.
But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.
America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs. And I know that you want these job-creating projects in your districts. I’ve seen you all at the ribbon-cuttings.
State of the Union addresses, which lay out a full agenda and nod to various constituent groups, don't lend themselves to emotional climaxes, but Obama reached one as pleaded for effective measures to curb gun violence.  As in his post-Newtown speech, he argued that as a nation we need to do better, that we are failing in a foundational duty:
Of course, what I’ve said tonight matters little if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resource – our children.
He was helped by the stoic dignity of a pair of bereaved parents he singled out as he called for action in the names of those slain in a dishonor roll of recent mass killings. This was the ultimate reality check:
It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans – Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment – have come together around commonsense reform – like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. 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 they are tired of being outgunned.

Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. 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, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.

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.

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.
That call to the most basic duty led to a powerful statement of creed, urging a pragmatism that in the wake of the exhortation that preceded it was the opposite of cold:
Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
"We were sent here to make what difference we can" -- the credo of an audacious incrementalist.

* Sweeping past a lot here: as Ezra Klein highlights, the speech was full of audacious policy proposals, from universal pre-k to cap-and-trade to a $9 minimum wage.

Related:   Meet the new Obama, same (mostly) as the old Obama
                Our liberal history: Obama's oldest trope

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