We are Citizens; the Time is Now

In the first State of the Union address of his second term as president of the United States, Barack Obama outlined an ambitious agenda, to reform economic and social policy, education, immigration, energy, gun control laws, and laws governing gender equality. He laid down the most direct and explicit challenge to lawmakers on climate policy, saying “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

The Congress has a choice on climate policy: comprehensive, market-based bipartisan policy, or an aggressive register of executive actions to tighten regulations and ensure US carbon emissions drop at the necessary rate. He called specifically for a “bipartisan market-based” approach, but left the specifics to lawmakers. Fortunately, thousands of citizens are already building political will for a bipartisan, market-based approach with none of the flaws of cap and trade. (Learn more here.)

When President Obama called for swift action to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, which would include a “path to citizenship” for immigrants with unofficial status, he received a standing ovation from the entire hall, including Speaker of the House John Boehner. Clearly, Obama’s second term is already marked by serious Republican self-examination: it is likely no longer possible for any candidate to win the presidency without winning at least 40% of the Hispanic vote.

Unwavering in his craftsmanship as an orator, Obama timed his revelations, declarations and provocations both delicately and with brazen precision. It was at the very end, after consistently putting forward a project aimed at shoring up hard-working families’ economic situations, improving opportunities for education, entrepreneurship and job creation, and framing every policy detail in the quest to build a thriving, expanding middle class, that he talked about gun violence.

He spoke emotionally, and with the moral force of a crucial moment in history:

One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.

Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.

The message of the speech was consistent, and echoed what voters have been asking for now for decades: the sentiment that the American democratic experiment does not work without an educated, empowered, ever-expanding middle class, and that we, as citizens, have an obligation to do our part to make that state of affairs possible.

What might be the most quoted passage from the address, decades from now, was the finale, which seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the political moment, what we can expect from the next four years and why the president is enjoying the most widespread approval he has seen since 2009. He summed up the moment as follows:

We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

Obama also seemed to have picked up specific threads of rising political consciousness that have always fed his campaigns and his popularity, but which have not always been the easiest to explain in the sound-byte hotbed of Washington politics: specifically, those ideas, policies and priorities which arise from the near universal popularity of non-ideological pragmatic progressive problem-solving.

When he spoke of the ongoing home mortgage crisis—which got moving before Obama even entered the United States Senate, and which was created the worst global financial crisis in 80 years by the time he was sworn in as president—Obama was firm, clear and importantly inoffensive. He used the same straightforward, pragmatic way of talking about home mortgages that people tend to use: what’s stopping Washington from acting to allow refinancing that will stop foreclosures and keep families in their homes.

Obama noted that even now, there are millions of families who have “never missed a payment” but whose mortgages are irrationally priced, based on expectations from a housing bubble that never turned out to be real. The core question for legislators, then, should be: given that these foreclosures are so destructive to families, communities and small business, and that banks get less from them than from refinanced repayment, what’s the hold-up?

Failure to reform and repair the mortgage market is holding up the entire economy. Banks are still refusing new loans and refinancing to homeowners and/or buyers with good credit. The system is not working, and the middle class and working families are not only suffering, but are falling farther and farther behind, economically.

At what seemed like well-timed regular intervals, like a pendulum keeping time, the president proposed one after another new program focused on building the middle class and restoring innovation and job-creation to families and communities. Key areas of focus Obama pledged to commit to included:

  • public-private manufacturing partnerships;
  • a network of 15 manufacturing hubs;
  • infrastructure redevelopment;
  • a stronger push for emissions free, alternative fuel transport;
  • high-speed rail and mass-transit improvements;
  • support for world-leading clean-energy development;
  • aggressive support for energy efficiency measures;
  • support for universal access to quality preschool and to higher education—both of which are known to yield better-paying, more stable jobs

In a crucial show of support to science and to engineering, and to the kind of policies that actually support an expanding middle class—which tax cuts for multinationals do not do—Pres. Obama cited the view of corporate leaders and major investors that to reinvest heavily in the United States, major improvements need to be made to aging and deteriorating infrastructure. He called for common-sense policy to make the middle-class economy stronger.

Obama boasted—rightly—that his administration’s efforts to persuade hi-tech firms to bring manufacturing back to the US were beginning to bear fruit. Apple is bringing some manufacturing of its Mac computers back to the US. In all, the speech focused heavily on what people experience at the human scale, and challenged lawmakers to do the same.

The speech also put another challenge to the intensely partisan Congress of 2013: try to recognize that much of what you are debating, discussing and working toward, is not really ideological at all, but of transcendent pragmatic interest to ordinary citizens. People demand conscientious collaborative problem-solving from their elected officials, and it is time to stop ignoring that basic demand.

The theme of the evening was clearly that of share responsibility and the reciprocal dynamics of living in a representative democracy. We are citizens, and so we have responsibilities. In the language of Buckminster Fuller, we are all crew on Spaceship Earth; there are no passengers. The time to work together to build a brighter, more democratic future for this republic is now.

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