I wanted so desperately to believe the president last night when he stepped before both houses of Congress, before the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the more liberal members of the Supreme Court and Chief Justice John Roberts and a tie-less Ted Nugent to proclaim that the state of our union is strong.
I wanted to believe that our elected leaders, from the White House on down, really do have the will to rise above their petty partisanship, to stop “drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next”, and take courageous action on a host of critical issues.
I wanted to believe in hope.
But the tragic fact is, I can’t.
There’s a deep thirst for leadership in this country, and that thirst is not going to be slaked by a slug from a bottle of Poland Spring water.
- Seamus McGraw
Even as I listened last night to the president’s State of the Union speech, I knew that the real measure of the state of our union was being taken 3,000 miles away from the Capitol. I knew that even as the president reached the dramatic apex of his speech – his impassioned plea to a divided Congress to at last do something to stem the bloody tide of gun violence in this country – sheriff’s officers and police were sifting through the ashes of a burned-out cabin in Big Bear, California looking for the remains of a deranged killer.
It was being taken 200 miles to the north of Washington, in places like Sea Bright, New Jersey and the Rockaways, where months after the latest in a series of historic storms fueled, at least in part scientists believe, by a climate that is becoming increasingly unstable, thousands still wait for help and for guidance from a government that can’t even acknowledge the rapidly accelerating climate crisis, let alone find the will to address it.
And it was being taken at kitchen tables across the country, where millions of beleaguered Americans, the unemployed, the underemployed, and the employed for now, still struggling almost six years later to dig themselves out from the wreckage of an economic disaster, watch in disgust as politicians from both parties, and the president himself, play chicken with the sequester and try to outdo each other as they seek to strike appropriate ideological poses rather than seek compromise.
That’s the state of our union, broke, battered, bristling with arms, seething over slights, real and imagined, and desperately looking for leadership.
I had hoped to hear an honest accounting of that desperate lack of leadership from the president last night. Others claim they did. I did not.
Rather than the hopeful, optimistic, broad shouldered call to arms that so many pundits claimed they heard when the president stepped to the podium last night, what I heard was a tacit admission from the administration that system is badly broken.
That message came through not in what he said – he said all the right things: calling for, but not really outlining, a plan to support the nation’s imperiled middle class, demanding a long overdue hike in the minimum wage, linking energy production and climate to economics, among other things– but in who he said them to.
The president made little effort to even pretend that he was talking to a restive, deeply divided Congress that he knows is unlikely to embrace many of his proposals.
Instead, he made it clear he was trying to talk past the members of Congress, and directly to the American people. But between the lines, there was an admission that the extreme partisanship that has seized Washington has in many ways crippled us.
Yes, there is room for progress on some issues, the president seemed to be saying. Certainly on immigration, which in the aftermath of an election that saw Latino voters reject the GOP virtually en masse, the president is willing to meet Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and the Gang of Eight more than half way, acknowledging that undocumented workers would have to wait in line behind legal immigrants.
But even as he passionately demanded that reluctant Republicans and some Democrats who remain skittish or downright hostile over reviving and improving the nation’s lapsed assault weapons ban, bring the matter to a vote, it was clear that he was calling on the American people to support the steps he had already taken through a raft of executive orders, in the hope that down the road greater and more effective steps could be taken.
And it was on the issue of addressing climate change, when he urged Congress to take action or risk having him take steps unilaterally, that the unspoken thesis of the State of the Union speech became clearest.
What this president, who was repeatedly stymied in his efforts to find bipartisanship in his first term, was now telling the American people was that its government has become so utterly dysfunctional, so paralyzed by partisanship that he was now willing to use the power of the presidency which has grown spectacularly over the past 30 years to bypass Congress altogether if need be. He was indirectly asking for the people’s support in that endeavor, and according to snap polls taken immediately after the speech, more than half of Americans seem perfectly willing to give it to him, with a third more at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
To be fair, he did get a little help in persuading the American people that Congress was in danger of becoming irrelevant. That help came from Sen. Marco Rubio, who, in the official GOP response to the State of the Union, opted to recite a litany of vague, didactic Republican talking points, leavened only slightly by the very real and very compelling addition of a few facts about his personal background. His response could have been a call to arms, a rallying cry for post partisanship. Instead, it was rote. A dry catechism recited by the GOP’s fastest rising choir boy, so dry in fact that it's no wonder he had to lunge for a bottle of water halfway through it.
What I heard during the State of the Union speech and the Republican response was an unspoken acknowledgement of something that most Americans already know, that the state of our union is not strong, that there’s a deep thirst for leadership in this country, and that thirst is not going to be slaked by a slug from a bottle of Poland Spring water.
Seamus McGraw is a freelance journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Playboy, The Forward, and Readers' Digest. He is the author of "The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone." He can be reached on Twitter @seamusmcgraw, or on Facebook at The End of Country.