Obama sure can deliver one helluva speech.
And in his final State of the Union address, President Obama was nothing less than sensational.
Even the Republican response attack acknowledged Obama's virtuosity. Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina, began her attack by conceding that Obama "spoke eloquently about grand things" and that he "is at his best when he does that."
Of course, this was actually a thinly veiled insult against Obama. Ms. Haley was actually saying in effect that the only thing Obama can do is give great speeches but other than that he is a no good bum.
This is quite funny, however, because these backhanded insults lay bare the reality that the Republicans have no choice but to concede Obama's vast superiority in oration. They can't even come close to touching him.
It also reflects just how horribly these Republicans miss the point of what makes a great speech. To them, speeches are about the art of employing glossy techniques to attempt to spin nonsense into gold. They fail to understand that the reason Obama is such a compelling orator is not because Obama has outmatched them at employing superficiality and manipulation, but instead, it is because Obama expresses sincere views and articulates accurate observations that resonate deeply with our own sense of truth and fairness.
Now that's genuine leadership.
As Obama opened the address, we all expected to hear the standard and customary presidential boast that the state of the Union is strong! But that's not what came. Instead, we got a little dose of humor that Obama would try to make the speech shorter. And then even more humor when he said he was accommodating the people in the audience who were "antsy to get back to Iowa," referring playfully to the no less than three presidential candidates in the audience and the upcoming Iowa presidential caucus. Pretty funny.
But okay, so now we're expecting to hear the ol' standard that the state of the Union is strong! But still it didn't come. Instead, the actual speech itself got underway. Obama informed us that he was not going to follow the standard format of reciting a laundry list of policy proposals for the upcoming year.
Hm. So, he's not telling us that the state of the Union is "strong," and he's not giving us a list of new proposals. Well, then, what in the world is this speech going to be about?
These concerns quickly melt away because we are suddenly swept into the current of the speech and find ourselves listening intently.
We identify with the current state of affairs that the entire world is in the midst of enormous change right now, and that we must face these changes and we must make choices about how to respond to these changes. We are reminded that America has faced many changes in our past, and that we previously rose-up and used our strengths as a nation to overcome these challenges.
We must now decide whether we will "respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for, in the incredible things that we can do together?"
Ahhh, now we begin to see how this speech is shaping-up. Instead of constituting a laundry list of policy proposals, this State of the Union address is focusing on the current mood of the nation, how best to interpret and confront the changes that are facing us, and what our choices will mean for our future.
Wow. Obama is totally right. Everyone's mind is indeed focused on the mood of the nation. And even though this format boldly breaks the mold for a State of the Union address, it is quite an inspired choice for a topic. Obama has his finger directly on the national pulse.
Recently, the mood of the nation has been largely defined by the various presidential candidates in the midst of this feverish campaign season. As events occur around the nation and the world, from terrorist attacks, to foreign aggression, to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the global economy, the nation has turned to the presidential candidates for interpretation of these events.
"Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline," Obama declared, "is peddling fiction."
Whoa! Obama directly contradicts the message of doom-and-gloom that has been pounded into our heads recently by the presidential candidates. They rant and rave endlessly about how everything is utterly disastrous. Not so, says Obama. And he then goes on to cite facts and figures that remind us of America's economic might.
But Obama also points to the truth that our economy is suffering from an income inequality that has rigged the system in favor of the wealthiest and the biggest corporations and has devastated the middle class and the poor. This income inequality is one of those challenges that we must now face. It has been created by changes taking place throughout the world, mainly by a global economy where corporations can now easily outsource jobs to low-cost foreign countries, and by automation where human jobs are replaced with technology.
Obama again speaks the truth that resonates powerfully within us. These are enormous challenges that have resulted from a changing external world. Yet the presidential candidates spew the overly simplistic nonsense that all of these problems were created by Obama.
Just as "all the talk of America's economic decline is political hot air," Obama declared, "so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker."
Whoa! Obama directly contradicts another doom-and-gloom message that has been pounded into us by the presidential candidates.
"America is the most powerful nation on earth. Period. It's not even close." Obama reminded us of an accurate sense of perspective. While terrorists can do a lot of damage to individuals and thus must be stopped, he said, "fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages... do not threaten our national existence."
Amazing. Again, this is another truth that contradicts the widespread gloom of the national mood, and instead resonates with our own perceptions. While terrorists are nasty and we need to protect ourselves from them, they are not going to create any sort of a global empire that threatens America or the world.
So the claims we have been hearing from the presidential candidates are doing us a grave disservice because they are not accurate, and they seem to have dragged us down into a national mood that is darker and more hateful than who we actually are as a nation. This is not leadership.
We are not facing World War III, and the answer is not to carpet-bomb civilians, Obama said, referencing some of what has been asserted by the presidential candidates. We also must "reject any politics - any politics - that targets people because of race or religion." The world respects America "for our diversity, and our openness, and the way we respect every faith."
"When politicians insult Muslims, ... when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn't make us safer. That's not telling it like it is. It's just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country."
Thus far in this one little speech, Obama has singlehandedly corrected a deep and dark national misperception that had been created by all the negativity emanating from the presidential candidates.
And then Obama transitioned to make a new point. "The future we want...," he said, "will only happen if we fix our politics." It is up to us, the voters, "We the People," as our Constitution begins. And then Obama turned and directly addressed all the voters in the nation. He said that we can have a better politics. We can have a politics that is not plagued by gridlock and the poisonous vitriol being spewed by the presidential candidates that has led to this dark national mood.
He said that not only do we need to elect better political candidates who will elevate the political discourse instead of corrode it, but also, we need to fix our political system. We need to change the way congressional districts are drawn, and implement campaign finance reform to reduce the influence of money in politics, and make the act of voting easier for everyone.
Obama said and repeated that he, by himself, or any individual president for that matter, could not implement these improvements acting alone. While the central point is certainly that these changes require action by the voters, it also serves to highlight that these problems of gridlock and excessive partisanship that currently plague the system were not caused by Obama.
Obama then shifted into a rousing finale. He encouraged us that we the voters can, in fact, achieve the reforms and create the better political system that we desire. We must not give up now, for to do so would be to surrender the future to the wealthy and powerful. Obama said he knows we can do it because he sees it every day in his interactions with ordinary Americans all across the nation. The assembly-line worker, the Dreamer, the ex-convict, the young cop, the soldier, the nurse, and all sorts of other Americans.
"That's the America I know," Obama thundered. "That's the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That's what makes me so hopeful about our future. I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.
"And that's why I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong!"
Pow! What an explosive ending! Aha! So he didn't forget about the tradition of stating that the Union is "strong," but instead he saved it for the very last word of the entire speech. Powerful!
But then, after you settle down a bit, you begin to think about it. Hold on a second here. Something is going on. This is a twist on the standard formulation.
Traditionally, when the president states that the Union is "strong," it is in the context of the president taking credit for his own successes in office. It is sort of like the president bragging a little bit about his own accomplishments, like the president saying, "The Union is strong because I have done such a great job overseeing it as president."
But this is not what is going on here in this speech. This is not what Obama is saying. Obama is not saying that the state of the Union is "strong" because of what a great job he himself has done as president. No. Obama is saying that the reason the Union is "strong" is because of the strength of the American people!
Whoa! He is turning the entire traditional formulation on its head. Obama is saying that the Union is "strong" because the American people will rise-up to meet the current challenges we face, including the challenge of reforming the political system so that we will never again allow ourselves to be dragged down into a dark and ominous national mood like the one we're in now that does not accurately reflect the uplifting nature of our own true spirit.
Wow. Now that's pretty cool.
Thank you, President Obama, for inspiring us.
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