In January of 1776, Thomas Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense that galvanized colonist support for American independence. 236 years later, Barack Obama presented his own forceful version of common sense in his third State-of-the-Union address.
Since last May Republican presidential candidates have engaged in the political equivalent of Demolition Derby; attacking each other, the President, and the necessity for a Federal government. As a consequence of their media circus, Barack Obama has been out of the limelight. His State-of-the-Union address was a dynamic reminder that among Washington politicians Obama remains the adult in the room.
In recent history, the annual State-of-the-Union address has been used as an opportunity for the President to present a laundry list of items that he wants Congress to work on over the next year. But this Congress – because of Tea-Party obstructionists in the House of Representatives – is unlikely to pass little but the most essential legislation. So Obama delivered a more philosophical speech than is usual. He asked: how do we construct “an economy built to last?” An economy “where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded?”
The President gently reminded Congress that members of the Armed Forces “work together.” He repeatedly asked Congress to work more cooperatively with the executive branch, to pay attention to the US value of shared responsibility.
Remembering his grandparents. Obama spoke of the American optimism after World War II. “They were contributing to … the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.” Obama paused to emphasize, “The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive… We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Obama threw down the gauntlet: in the 2012 election he will stand with the 99 percent.
The President repeatedly linked fairness to the health of the economy. “An economy built to last is one where we encourage the talent and ingenuity of every person in this country.” “An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.”
Obama reserved his strongest rhetoric for a discussion of tax fairness. He pointed out that Billionaire “Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.” “We need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes.” “Tax reform should follow the Buffet Rule. If you make more that $1million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.” Obama distinguished his candidacy from those of Gingrich and Romney.
Because of Obama’s insistence that American millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share in taxes, Republican presidential candidates have accused the President of being divisive, of fostering class warfare. In his State-of-the-Union address, Obama responded, “Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most American would call that common sense.” He linked common sense with defense of the 99 percent.
Obama elaborated this populist theme. “Americans… know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to the future of their country, they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility… That’s an America built to last.”
The President ended his state-of-the-union address with an emotional story about the Navy SEAL team that conducted the mission to get Osama bin Laden. “One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job… because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back.” Obama finished with this common sense message: “No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.”
Barack Obama’s memorable State-of-the-union address kicked off his 2012 campaign. The centerpiece will be common sense. “The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive… We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org