This past Tuesday, all my favorite shows were cancelled thanks to the State of the Union (SOTU) being aired on every channel. So I just hunkered down and watched/listened. (I’m kidding about the tone–I like that networks do their best to get you to watch the SOTU, because it is important.) Here are some of my thoughts on the whole affair.
1. Cards on the table: I consider myself a theological conservative and a political moderate/independent, though I do find myself leaning left more often than leaning right. I have this nasty tendency to see wisdom and folly in both “sides,” which makes it quite difficult for me to come out and make a decision when voting time comes around.
2. I approach political speeches with great cynicism. I know that everything about the SOTU is carefully calculated using market-based research and principles. As one of my pastor friends likes to say, “It’s hard to find the person behind the ideology,” or in this case “behind the crafted, vote-seeking presentation.” This is not a commentary on President Obama as much as our current political scene. (There was one entertaining moment of apparent spontaneity–when the audience was caught completely off-guard by one of the only jokes in the speech and Obama responded sheepishly to the crickets. And by the way, I love that they panned to Michelle; I get that face all the time at home!)
1. Call me unpatriotic, but I always get concerned when there is a lot of “America is the best” or “America needs to be the best” talk going on. Statements like this, for example: “Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win.” Is that true? What does he mean by leveling the playing field? It seems to me like you can pursue global justice or American economic/military superiority, but you cannot honestly serve both of those masters. Not all the blame falls on the President. There is this false notion going around that says to love one’s country means to think one’s country is the best in the world. It’s simply not true, and we ought to beware such language before a God who regards nations as nothing in his sight and who opposes the proud.
2. From whence they come? There were a lot of programs that the President laid out that I think would work. But a number of times, he mentioned the importance of rewards/incentives for businesses who stay in the U.S., for the best teachers, for kids who go to college, etc. A couple times, the President alluded to some ideas for funding these incentives. But there are still a lot of big question marks in my mind of how we materially encourage (bribe?) people to do the right thing while also making a dent in a ginormous debt. In another instance, the President gave a great line that got me excited coming from a family of educators: “Give [schools] the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” Preach it! But then this thought: If you are not going to evaluate teachers by standardized test results (a good thing) and you are going to reward the best teachers and weed out the ineffective ones (I suppose a good thing), how are you going to determine who gets rewarded and who gets booted? The President brings up a great issue. But how do we implement this in a fair way? And does the federal government really have the ability to accomplish this?
1. Specificity and purpose. While one commentator afterward called the speech a “laundry list,” I appreciated the President’s specific discussion of a variety of issues and what he sees needing to be done. During his 2008 campaign, I thought he was rightly criticized for giving speeches that were more cheerleading than clear on issues. But on this night, he simply said, “Here are the issues that need to be addressed. Here are the ways I see us best addressing them.” I liked that.
2. Inspiring and encouraging leadership. The President said a number of times to his congress, “Send me _____, and I’ll sign it right away.” First, let me qualify this: I realize that this refrain may have been intended to pass the buck for lack of effectiveness in the administration so far and blame congress for any future ineffectiveness. That said, as I listened, I found myself all excited to sign up for one of these committees. I think it’s great for a leader to say, “This is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Here is a vision for how we can do it. Now get creative and let’s make it happen!” Perhaps this is just my moderate naievete that we should be able to get together and work for the good of the country. So sue me, I liked it.
In conclusion, I enjoyed the President’s conclusion. He told us we needed to be more like the Navy SEALs who raided the bin Laden compound. ”All that mattered that day was the mission.” This is a concept we need to grasp as churches as well to battle our divisiveness (John Armstrong calls it “missional ecumenism“). But what is our mission as a nation? The SEALs had a very clear mission, which was why they could unite around it. But how does that apply to a nation?
What do you think? What were your thoughts about the President’s address? What do you think is our national purpose or mission, around which we can unite?