Friday, February 15, 2013

The State of our Union – a Mixed Bag of Hope

A Brief Look at President Barack Obama's Second Inaugural Address and the State of the Union Speech

Capitol Hill  (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Within the span of a few weeks I have twice heard what I consider to be inspiring words from President Barack Obama. I hope that anyone who feels differently about the president’s remarks will bear with me for this short space, because I am not entirely on board as far as political enthusiasm goes yet there are some reasons for me to have hope.

When poet Robert Frost visited Washington D.C. late in his life, he was making some comments at a public gathering. He said that some people wondered what his political affiliation was. He told the group that he had never stated it publicly, “but if you read what I write, you’ll know that I’m a Democrat.” After a brief pause, he added, “But I haven’t been happy since 1896!”  In my case,  I have never joined a political party, but readers of this blog will know where my sympathies usually lie.

I will never forget that night watching the Democratic convention in the summer of 2004 when an unknown Barack Obama delivered the key note address.  He declared that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.”

As he continued with his speech I said to my wife, “this guy could one day be our president!” I did not imagine that that day would come as soon as it did. Fast forward a bit and you see the harsh realities of governing in a land that is polarized by ideologies and political gamesmanship.  Even Obama’s greatest achievement in passing healthcare legislation was, in my opinion, not nearly what could or should have happened. But then, there is the reality of governing and moving things forward when there is intractable opposition.

The Second Inaugural Address

Now as we stand at the beginning of a second presidential term, I continue to have some hope, but I also have some reservations. We’ll do the hope part first: The president’s second inaugural address was one that was full of light and hope. Here are some statements that stood out for me:

“This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America's possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it - so long as we seize it together.

“For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other - through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security - these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

The State of the Union Address

Inaugural addresses are supposed to be a unifying vision statement of where we would like to be as a nation. The state of the union address which has become an annual affair in modern times is not without ceremonial value, but it is also part of the president’s constitutional duty to report to the congress as to the state of the union. It tends to be more of a platform to outline the political policies that the president would like to see enacted.

The president’s state of the union address last Tuesday was, once again, an inspirational speech that gave me cause for hope. I liked, for example, the president’s statement that we should decide to finally listen to what science is telling us about climate change, and that if congress did not act for the good of the environment, then he would take presidential action. [Side bar statement: I am old enough to remember watching with great concern as a sixth-grader the news reports about trees dying in the hills of Los Angeles due to smog, and Lake Erie periodically catching on fire due to the amount of pollution in its waters. I witnessed the country respond to those crises by enacting legislation to curb the pollution of our air and water until we saw trees thriving again in California and the waters of Lake Erie running clear again. I wonder why we cannot respond today with that same kind of national purpose to do what is needed for the environment.]

For me, the most moving moment was when the President began to talk about the victims of gun violence who deserved a vote. People were standing and applauding, and he continued to speak above the applause with a litany of individuals who deserved a vote on reducing gun violence in our country.  There was also the call to improve our voting system so that no one’s voice is suppressed by having to wait long hours just to cast a vote. These are both significant ideals because it is the vote, not the gun that will make us safe.

The president also talked about getting our troops out of Afghanistan, and I am always glad to hear about the de-escalation of war. As he talked about our national defense in light of terrorism, however, I detected what could end up being the president’s most dangerous policy, and even a continuing blight upon his presidency:

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.
As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.
The president did not use the term “drone warfare” but he talked about “a range of capabilities” to “take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat.”  He also alluded to the questionable legality of the use of drones by promising to keep congress informed because “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way.”

Predator Drone (U.S. Air Force photo)
If the question had not been raised about the country’s use of drones in the Middle East, the president may not have even addressed counterterrorism operations. It is unfortunate that as a nation, we still do not understand that it is the footprint of our empire that breeds terrorism. Our invasion of Iraq only furthered the cause of al Queda, and our dropping of bombs on civilians as we try to ferret out the terrorists only fans the flames of the terrorists. Bill Moyers recently delivered an excellent two-minute commentary, “When We Kill without Caring,” in which he posed the question, regarding drone warfare, “Does it give rise to second thoughts by those judges who prematurely handed our president the Nobel Prize for Peace? Better they had kept in on the shelf in hopeful waiting, untarnished.”

It may be that any man, no matter what his ideals are, becomes imprisoned by the imperial machine when he becomes president of the United States (we’ve yet to see how a woman would respond). One wonders, for example, how Lyndon Johnson would have fared without Viet Nam. He was the president who had the vision to implement Headstart, Medicare and Medicaid. He was the one with the courage to make civil rights legislation happen (at the expense of losing the South to the Republican Party) because it was the right thing to do. But when it came to war, he could not see beyond an empire’s myopic need to fight.  It just may be that our current president will have to succumb to the will of the war machine, even if the war ends up looking remote and clinical in the form of an unmanned remote control aircraft.

My Own Bias (In the Interest of Full Disclosure)

I should state my own bias that shapes my views on what is best for our country. First of all, in matters of war and national defense, I side with our Quaker friends who have steadfastly resisted violence and continue to declare that war is not the answer. In our modern world, diplomacy and engagement are better tools than armies and guns when it comes to stability. The world is now too small, the weapons too big, and the stakes too high for us to continue to rely upon warfare as a means of international negotiation. Someone needs to hold us to a higher ethic than mere  nationalistic hegemony, and the Quakers along with others are doing just that.

In matters of a healthy society, I am for the common good and I take my cue from the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in  Matthew 25 as to how we treat “the least of these.” For me, that parable of Jesus is not just a “final exam” to illustrate who gets into the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, I do not consider it to be a story about heaven.  I see it as a guide to what constitutes a just and compassionate society that works for the good of all. The parable does not speak of individuals gathered before the Son of God on Judgment Day. The way Jesus frames it, he speaks of “all the nations gathered,” with each nation being judged on the basis of how its marginalized and weakest citizens are treated.  Thus, the test of a just nation and a compassionate society is based upon how the sick, the weak, the needy, the hungry, and those in prison are treated. This is where Catholic social teaching hits the mark, particularly in matters of social and economic justice. In the U.S., we have a good record in some respects of improvements that benefit the common good and which provide a safety net for the down-and-out. In other respects we have a long way to go before we can be called a just society.

On measure, I have hope on this day as we move ahead. On the other hand, I realize that we are still a polarized country, the process of governing is still cumbersome, and any progress will probably come in fits and starts. Nevertheless, we have a chance to make some real progress but we will not get there unless we all get there.


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