Consider the nation when Barack Obama first swore the oath:
- In the depths of an economic crisis, precipitated by our collective disregard of financial stewardship, that would eliminate 8.8 million jobs and wipe out $19.2 trillion in household wealth
- Regaining our bearings after a terrorist network had blasted our home soil
- Engaged in twin military quagmires based on the subsequent “war on terror”
On that occasion seven years ago, the first African-American president told us:
We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
Consider where we are now:
- Living with an economy that grows modestly, and sensing that few will experience job security
- Fearing a different terrorist network whose confederates’ mass murders occur far less frequently than those of neighbors acting on disparate grudges
- Engaged in diplomacy with enemies, the fruit of which includes the release within a day of U.S. sailors drifting into Iranian waters
- In the midst of a typically divisive presidential campaign, dominated by one party’s contest whose themes are fear, lost standing, tribal identity (religion, party, ethnicity) and military projection
In his final State of the Union message, President Obama began by drawing on Lincoln’s second annual message to Congress (the inadequacy of dogmas of the quiet past) and ended on a rhythm drawn from King. But he hit the same theme he had in his first presidential speech: Diversity is our strength.
The world respects us not just for our arsenal, it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith. His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I’m standing on tonight that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad, or fellow citizens, 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.
It will not be enough to reject tribalism, the president said in moving to his fourth of four questions: “How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us?” We must embrace the meaning the Constitution’s preamble: We the People . . . in Order to form a more perfect Union.
“The future we want, all of us want – opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids – all that is within our reach.” But not if we and those we elect insist on being right.
Facing the camera, Obama advised that if we want a better politics, changing the cast of characters is insufficient. “We have to change the system to reflect our better selves,” alluding to the last phrase of Lincoln’s First Inaugural. He named three ways: ending gerrymandering, “the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters”; reducing “the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections”; and easing the process of voting (the most difficult among Western democracies). Those changes, not in whom we elect but how, “will only happen when the American people demand it.” In other words, when we decide that the fairness of the process is more important than the outcome.
Like any other citizen, I have my differences with Obama – where he’s gone too far in one direction or another, misplayed his hand with a recalcitrant opposition or defied the limits of executive authority. What I have admired about him, regardless of his policies, is his consistent vision, temperament, and appeal to the better angels of our nature. Regardless of race, creed, origin or orientation, we are bound by a common creed, he said last night. Proposed in 1782, it’s on the seal: “out of many, one.”