I’ve spoken with several people who just could not watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech. These are Obama supporters, but for various reasons, they shied away because of anticipated pain, or at least a disappointment, in listening to him once again plead his case to Congress and the American people. I tried to watch the speech but gave up quickly to resume my marathon viewing of HBO’s “The Wire.”
I was watching “The Wire” because it is gritty and the characters frequently use few words to say a lot. In “The Wire,” you get zero points for B.S.-ing anyone. If you have something to say, say it bluntly and live with the consequences of your chosen words. Not exactly a State of the Union speech.
In the State of the Union address, the currency of the realm is platitudes. Whereas in “The Wire,” someone speaks to a single audience, in the SOTU (State of the Union), words are chosen to placate the needs and desires of specific interest groups. You don’t hear characters in “The Wire” pander to the middle class. They don’t speak in code to Wall Street.
This year, President Obama’s theme was strengthening the middle class. Who would disagree with that? No one publicly. The Republicans say much the same thing; the only difference is that when it comes to action, they don’t even pretend to make good on their promises. For all intents and purposes, when a politician is speaking to the middle class, he or she is essentially speaking to everyone. Virtually all Americans, except perhaps those in the bottom 2% and top 2%, believe they’re in the middle class. They also consider themselves in the catch-all group of “hard-working Americans.”
Even if most of us are pandered to as members of the middle class, we need more in the way of direct hits. The President reminds union members that he wants high wages; he tells teachers and parents that education is important; he tells environmentalists that while in office he will be our shepherd of the earth.
His platitudes in 2015 could have been spoken by virtually any other president in any other year:
• “But tonight, we turn the page.”
• “America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.”
• “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.”
Decades ago President Jimmy Carter learned that the American people don’t like to be asked to sacrifice. The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote that democracy involved a social contract between the people and the government. Many in the American body politic seem to have forgotten that a fair contract is a two-way street. Obama is no Carter when it comes to currying the favor of the American people, and he knows that the way to please the people is to offer rather than ask.
So what would it take for the president to deliver a State of the Union speech in which real progressives would tune in with anticipation? It wouldn’t have to be as coarse as “The Wire,” but it could be as direct. He might raise points such as:
1. We are not a united country; indeed we are divided between blue and red and many other persuasions as well.
2. As progressives, we’re having difficulty getting our message across to conservatives. If we want to move away from gridlock, we need to convince more Americans to buy into the idea of a social contract, which involves give and take.
3. How can we work to have a more humane and empathetic society without conservatives undermining our efforts?
4. The answers to these questions and many more are not simple, but we need to look more carefully at what frightens conservatives about compassion and work for ways to allay their fears.
It would not necessarily be a speech with a lot of answers, but it might rival “The Wire” in engaging the mind. That would be a good start.