I came to President Obama's first State of the Union speech prepared to be disappointed. I mean really prepared -- I seriously considered skipping it. I expected politics as usual and a continuation of what has seemed to be the President's waffling on taking a strong political stand against the nonsense being put out on the right from the far right to the so-called moderates, and I felt that if that was what happened it would break my heart.
Nonetheless, I did watch, and what I saw seemed to me to be something different. The President seemed to take on all comers -- from the Republican obstructionists to the Supreme Court to his own faint-hearted party. The strong stands he took on jobs, the economy, health care reform, don't ask-don't tell, etc. pleased some and left others sitting on their hands, but, from my point of view, that's good. My biggest concern was that he would continue to try to please everybody or go so polar that he pissed off only one side.
When Obama made his unequivocal statement on eliminating don't ask-don't tell, the Joint Chiefs in the front row were, to a man, stone-faced. Good.
When he rebuked the Supreme Court for the incredibly bad Citizens United decision, Justice Alito did a modified Joe Wilson which escaped no one's notice. Good.
When he spoke of health care reform, the Republicans sat on their hands while their leadership, Boehner and Cantor, smirked and whispered, presumably something disparaging. Good.
And when he basically told the assembled houses of Congress to grow up and start thinking about the country rather than their parties' election chances, a lot of people didn't like it. Good.
From the beginning, I have wanted to believe that Obama knows what he's doing, that he has a strategy, and that he has been steering a clear -- if not transparent -- course in his first year. What I saw last night was confirmation of this. Obama is way past being the first Post-Racial President -- he wants to be the first Post-Political President of the modern era. Our greatest presidents -- Lincoln comes to mind -- have put the country's values and welfare ahead of politics. They have, in the best American tradition, done what was right, not what was politically expedient or personally preferable. They did not take us into wars trivially, but did not hesitate to fight when honor and principle demanded it. They did not pander to popular opinion but did the hard things, in JFK's words, "because they are hard." They did not attempt to prearrange how history would judge them, but did the right thing and let history worry about the judgment - FDR and the New Deal, Truman and the atomic bombing of Japan to end the war.
Arianna Huffington wrote that she thought the speech was focus-grouped within an inch of its life - that it was designed to have one applause line for every group; she calls it a "pander-palooza." With all due respect to she who allows me to be read, I disagree. Pandering would have been playing to the crowd both in the chamber and at home -- promising big, introducing in the audience people who were out of work, lacking health insurance, trying to pluck the strings of sympathy in the hearts of the larger audience. In his speech, Obama was a statesman rather than a politician -- to call out those who are acting in something other than the public interest and to demand action, partnership, and change.
Maybe I just don't want to give up the dream. Maybe I can't confront how disappointed I will be if, in the end, Obama turns out to be more like Carter than he is like FDR or Lincoln, but I don't think so. I think what I saw last night is the harbinger of a sea change in the Presidency and in how we are governed. At least I hope so.