Making sense of a president’s annual State of the Union message is like looking at an Impressionist painting — one must step back, get past the formality and look for the big picture.
Tuesday’s 65-minute performance by Barack Obama came at the start of his sixth year as president, a mid-term election year, before a Congress severely divided not only by party but also within one of the parties virtually to the point of paralysis.
The president’s optimism about Americans achieving in the face of adversity served to address a common theme these days — that the United States is not only in decline in terms of its principles, goals and objectives, but it is also losing ground compared to much of the rest of the world. Two striking areas in which these facts bear out are education and health care.
Mr. Obama faced this with a deck of anecdotes on individual Americans’ ability to cope with the trials of daily life. He recounted the small but cumulative successes of teachers, entrepreneurs, autoworkers, farmers and parents.
Another subject that Mr. Obama spoke to was the failure of Congress to address most of the country’s problems constructively. It was sad that he had to admonish federal lawmakers that the recent “budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises.” He was referring to last year’s government shutdown and looking ahead to the looming debt ceiling drama.
After stating his desire to work with Congress to resolve the nation’s problems, he made it clear that he would use executive orders and other means if federal lawmakers would not play ball.
He said his agenda for the year would include tax reform, climate change, an immigration overhaul, expanding job training and pre-kindergarten education, raising the minimum wage, securing voting rights and restraining gun violence. On the foreign affairs front, he said he intended to move the United States off a permanent war footing, to close the penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, to support Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and to complete action, with verification, on the Iran nuclear accord. He promised to veto any new sanctions Congress might seek to impose on Iran to derail the negotiations.
His final gesture, paying tribute to Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, a severely wounded soldier who had been deployed 10 times to the eight-year war in Iraq and the 13-year war in Afghanistan, pointed up the need for America to seek to resolve international problems by negotiations rather than war.
Even though this State of the Union event, like so many others, had its share of ritual and theater, the country should have walked away with a sense that the United States still has leadership in the White House with the energy, will and resourcefulness to govern reasonably.