Why the State of the Union Doesn't Matter

I’m not a fan of President Obama, but I’m not a fan of any American president (or any president, I guess). So when his State of the Union address hits the news, I’m somewhat baffled. Even before I have heard or read it, I know it contains nothing newsworthy. Why would it? Politicians aren’t out to accomplish anything, to see change or only occasionally. And what does it matter, if Obama says the U.S. is still great and will only be better? (which I’ll assume will be the message because it always is). None of what he says will make any difference. It will be cheered by his fans, attacked by his political enemies (but not for content but out of principle) and everyone else will have forgotten it instantly. Still, because it is considered newsworthy, I thought I could take a look at it to see what kinds of things Obama (or whoever wrote the speech) actually is saying. You can read the whole speech here or watch it here. But I’ll work with quotes, so you don’t have to.

We are fifteen years into this new century.  Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world.  It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. 

But tonight, we turn the page.

Isn’t it fascinating how this idea of us living in a terrible world is so commonplace that the American President can open his speech with it? And how ridiculous is that last sentence in that context? We are told all the time that life sucks, the world is going down the drain and has been for almost half of the time that Obama was president. But now, because of this speech, it will all change! Why would anyone take politicians seriously with their stupid use of hyperbole?

The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.

At this moment – with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.  It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.

More hyperbole, but also one of the first instances of exceptionalism. I know it’s a tradition, but it’s both so arrogant but also so illusionary for its citizens. If you always feel to be the best, of course any setback feels worse and unfair. And why is a comparison even necessary? Well, because our culture strives on competition.

Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?  Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?

Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing?  Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?

Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another – or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?

This use of rhetorical questions is so belittling and stupid, and it only serves to build up more illusions about the future, word bubbles that sound grand and special, but are so vague that they mean nothing. “Recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward”? Give us a fucking break. Assuming that so many people share the same purpose is one reason for many of the failures everyone then laments about. That’s why this bloated language drives me so crazy, especially when it gets so much attention.

We believed we could prepare our kids for a more competitive world.  And today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record.  Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high.  And more Americans finish college than ever before.

Do you see the disconnect here? How the “results” have nothing to do with preparing kids for this world? We only have numbers to offer from our education system, so we can ignore that our kids just learn apathy, frustration, pressure and ignoring your instincts in school already before they have to go through the same emotions in their job most of the time.

21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure – modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet.  […] 21st century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas.  Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages.  But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region.  That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage.  Why would we let that happen?  We should write those rules.  We should level the playing field. 

This is what it is all about, after all. Embracing capitalism to the fullest, only focusing on more and more, faster and faster and beating China to the finishing line. How could we stop for a moment and reflect upon what we’re doing when there is so much pressure to be better than the others?

We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small – by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.  Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength.  Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters. 

That’s how America leads – not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.

That’s the principle of the U.S.? It takes a lot of guts to say that while drones wreak havoc in Africa and the rest of the world still tries to grapple with the aftermath of the Snowden leaks and the report on torture.

In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.  When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. 

I would argue that trying something new if it doesn’t work shouldn’t take 50 years to test. A good sign of trying something new would be getting close to a nuclear war over 50 years ago. I mean, “If something doesn’t work, try something else” is a principle I try to live by, but the U.S. or any government of our culture certainly doesn’t.

As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.  It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.  It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims – the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace.  That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.

“Properly constrained” is a great political euphemism that mocks all the deaths those drones have caused already. The rest is the standard lip service of any leader. Which doesn’t mean anything, of course.

Looking to the future instead of the past.  Making sure we match our power with diplomacy, and use force wisely.  Building coalitions to meet new challenges and opportunities.  Leading – always – with the example of our values.  That’s what makes us exceptional.  That’s what keeps us strong.  And that’s why we must keep striving to hold ourselves to the highest of standards – our own.

Just look at the reasoning here. What makes them exceptional is that they follow their values. Does this mean everyone else doesn’t? That only the U.S. has good values? And how often does anyone think that great values are at work when you follow American politics?

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns.  Imagine if we did something different.

Understand – a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. 

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. 

A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives. 

A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.

Yes, imagine that. Imagine any politician, any government, any leading figure in our culture trying something different. And look at his examples to see how there is nothing “different” about it, how it is the same thing mentioned year after year and how it is not different. I am so sick of calls for decency and good will and tolerance. No one will disagree with that, which makes it so utterly pointless.

We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York.  But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed.  Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift.  Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

That’s a better politics.  That’s how we start rebuilding trust.  That’s how we move this country forward.  That’s what the American people want.  That’s what they deserve.

Look at this paragraph closely to see how nothing specific is said but the conclusion is “that’s how we do it.” How, exactly? By making people think something is done. By pretending everything will be better and more advanced and nicer and that there is progress. That’s what regressive rhetoric can achieve, painting a picture of progress by keeping the status quo and avoiding change.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not “anti-American” or “anti-Obama.” I just think we really need to stop listening to politicians and waiting for answers and help them pretending that they will achieve some change, often change people are expecting for decades. There will be no savior doing the job for us, especially no politician, no matter if they are black or white, male or female. And there is no reason to make big news stories out of such speeches. You can’t even blame them. Politics does not exist to achieve change but to regulate things and to keep the status quo. To avoid big change. It’s doing its job well enough. But if we don’t like it, we shouldn’t wait for politicians to change, but we have to find our own ways. And there is no one right way.