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Obama's State of the Union: Meditations on an Emergency

3 years ago
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Emboldened with renewed public confidence, President Obama will walk into the Capitol building on Tuesday evening with the wind in his sails. Recent polling shows that the president's approval rating has jumped past 50 percent, with the public trusting in his ability to negotiate compromise with Republicans and, post-Tucson, that it is impressed with his ability to unite the country in a time of fracture.

Standing on the floor where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords walked only weeks ago, Obama will look out at a newly intermingled bipartisan audience: Many Democrats and Republicans will be seated together, rather than separated across an aisle. While with this new arrangement may result in fewer standing ovations, so too will it curb the stone-faced disapproval (or worse) on the other side of the room.

Giffords will cast a long shadow, and President Obama's speech will follow his call -- in the wake of her shooting -- "to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together." If his speech in Tucson was a convincing reminder of our shared national identity, Obama's State of the Union will likely match its tone as the president speaks to the broad theme of common purpose.

In a video statement to supporters over the weekend, the president said the country must "win the future," and indicated that he would propose a long-term vision for America's economy and competitiveness on the global stage. In this respect, events in recent weeks will again serve to underscore and support the president's oratory.

Following Chinese President Hu Jintao's high-profile visit to Washington last week, Obama will make the case for renewed investment in American education, research and infrastructure, citing Chinese advances in high-speed rail, clean technology and higher education. With the pomp and circumstance of last week's state dinner still lingering in the minds his public, Obama will press the point that America's fiercest competition lies not within her borders, but across an ocean.

"Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist," according to an excerpt of the speech released by the White House.

"But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.
"This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

Yet for all the stagecraft -- and statecraft -- that would seem to push forward Obama's vision for America's future, the president's remarks will also have to directly address a powerful Republican opposition. House GOP members passed a measure, only hours earlier, that would take a machete to government programs in a bid to slash $2.5 trillion from the federal deficit.

Though the vote is largely symbolic, the proposed casualties -- among them, education, transportation and medical research -- reflect a fundamental difference of opinion. On the one hand, those who believe that the country must immediately tackle the looming federal deficit, while on the other, those who would focus on strategic investment in American infrastructure, waiting for a stronger economic climate before addressing the nation's mounting debt.

To his critics -- seated scattershot in the chamber -- Obama will offer a five year freeze on non-security discretionary spending. But as to the larger question of "investment" versus the GOP's "cut and grow" strategy, he is likely to offer the rejoinder first heard in a speech he made in December. Speaking to Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., he said, "The best antidote to a growing deficit is a growing economy. Cutting the deficit by cutting investments in areas like education, areas like innovation -- that's like trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine. It's not a good idea."

Obama's speech in North Carolina was little-noticed, however, and the State of the Union is, in every sense, prime time. Given that, we can expect that the presidential rhetoric will be significantly more soaring; less focused on the engineering of the economy, more intently pressing the case for American exceptionalism -- and inherently, the will to rise above partisan battles.

In the grandest sense, this particular moment affords Obama the opportunity to deliver a national homily on the character of the country, and his hopes for where he might take it. By way of guidance, then, perhaps it might be best to look to another passage from the same December speech, where the Obama proposed the following: "In 1957, the Soviet Union beat us into space by launching a satellite known as Sputnik. And that was a wake-up call." He continued, "Fifty years later, our generation's Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment."

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