Last night, President Obama's State of the Union address was a tale of two speeches. The first one was disappointing. The second offered signs of hope.
The beginning of the speech was a fairly routine laundry list of Obama's legislative agenda. I agreed with a lot of it, and I was dismayed that Obama gives so much credence to the talk about cutting the deficit. That is bad policy, and it undermines the rest of his policies.
But the problem with Obama's first speech was not any of the particular policies he enunciated. The main thing was that it was a list. Lists by their nature are uninspiring. We write down lists precisely because unless we keep referring to them, we'll forget what's on them. They are not inherently memorable. They are not self-enforcing. Obama kept saying, "Let's get it done." But to-do lists never get done unless the people who can make them happen are motivated to do so.
The people who can make Obama's agenda happen are...the people. Obama needed to motivate and activate his supporters, the ones who elected him and want great things from him. People in Congress are not opposed to "getting things done." Many of them (including some in his own party) are opposed to his specific agenda. To keep the heat on Congress, and to overcome the determined opposition, he needed to give the "hope and change" constituency a rallying cry and a framework within which they could unite and work together. Did he do that?
The second speech offered the rallying cry: "They deserve a vote." Obama was most directly talking about victims of gun violence, who deserve to have legislation aimed at preventing future tragedies debated and voted up or down, not smothered in committee or squelched through the filibuster.
But in context, that theme is broader. It singles out an increasingly isolated group of conservative white men and their allies who are out of step with the country on issue after issue and yet use their positions of power to block action. By not even allowing the proposals to come up for a vote, they say to the rest of the country--the 47% that Romney wrote off, or the 99% who have not gained an inch and have even lost ground for the past thirty years--"We know what's good for you. Your concerns don't matter."
Obama won the election in part by telling a diverse range of people that their concerns DO matter. At the end of that speech, he repeated that vision of America as a place where people have to be listened to. Sometimes, we call that vision democracy. It is Obama's winning message, and his best hope for getting the power of the people behind him.