Our State of Disarray

We've been told the state of our union is strong, but the people know better.

Let's start with the fact that the Republicans gave not one but three responses to President Obama's State of the Union address.

Nothing says disarray quite like that plethora of responses: the official response, the response from the tea party, and the response from planet Rand Paul.

The official version, delivered by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers -- Washington State's answer to Sarah Palin -- featured her child with Down's Syndrome, many invocations of God, and a total lack of any policy discussion whatsoever beyond "we have a plan."

What plan?

The Republicans are so short on plans that Obama got his second biggest applause line of the night when he said, "let's not have another 40-something votes" to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The Republicans' obsession with repealing the health care law, shutting down the government and generally dedicating themselves to obstruction has given Congress such a bad reputation, the President could count on public support when he announced he would work around them by using twelve executive orders to accomplish whatever he can without legislative help.

What Obama set out to accomplish in the speech was a list of, generally speaking, broadly popular, progressive, majoritarian goals: Increasing the minimum wage, connecting workers with jobs, relieving the burden of student debt and passing immigration reform.

There was much talk before the speech about how the President would emphasize inequality, and indeed he did. The gap between the rich and poor in this country, not seen since the Gilded Age, is fertile territory for a populist appeal.

In her response, Rodgers tried to draw a distinction between Democratic concerns over the income gap and Republican concerns about an "opportunity gap," but Obama had already beat her to the punch by using that phrase himself. Republicans, firmly associated with trickle-down economics, tax breaks for the rich and their steadfast refusal to extend unemployment benefits, have not figured out an effective way to get out of the public opinion hole they are in. McMorris tried to soften their image by leaning heavily on her biography as a woman, a mother and a nice person who came from humble roots. It wasn't enough.

But truth be told, Obama's folksy appeal wasn't really enough either, especially when put up against the grinding troubles his modest policy changes go only part of the way toward addressing.

Politicians love to invoke ordinary people. The teacher, the school-bus driver, the farmer -- all took on a heroic glow in the State of Union and the Republican responses.

In the unreal world of Washington, gritty images of real Americans who work at jobs for low wages, struggle to get health care and to pay their college loans and send their kids to school are practically a fetish item.

Obama did a good job of highlighting the actual policies he has pushed forward to address the concrete problems in ordinary Americans' lives. The Affordable Care Act, first and foremost, has made a profound difference for people. When the President pointed to Amanda Shelly, the physician's assistant from Arizona who did not go bankrupt when she had emergency surgery because was covered by the Affordable Care Act, House Speaker John Boehner scowled.

The same is true for hiking the minimum wage to $10.10 for federal contract workers. Increasing the minimum wage is hugely popular with the public, but the $10.10 increase is both modest -- compared with the local campaigns for a real, living wage of $15 an hour -- and it applies narrowly to the construction workers, janitors, cooks and other low-wage laborers who are paid by the Federal government.

Joe Biden's initiative, to train workers and connect them with employment relevant to their new training, is likewise a modest positive step.

But the impact of that program is nothing compared with the larger, structural problem of the decline in family-supporting employment in this country, which will only be exacerbated by a big initiative Obama favors -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will accelerate the global race to the bottom.

Education is another area where the President's soaring rhetoric about expanding opportunity runs into the fan blades of a competition-based, winners-and-losers approach.

Not only did Obama promote "Race To The Top," known to public school advocates across the country as "No Child Left Behind on steroids," he actually proposed expanding it to include pre-kindergarteners. How that might work is hard to fathom in our patchwork, private system of early childhood education. Will child care centers be shut down if pre-K kids don't score well enough on tests?

Obama also promoted his "all of the above" energy strategy -- a phrase only a DLC "Third Way" policy wonk could love -- even as the Keystone XL pipeline continues to draw massive protests from activists and scientists who warn that tapping Canada's tar sands will irreversibly damage the climate.

By far the biggest applause of the night last night was for Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, the badly injured vet seated next to Michelle Obama, who stood at the end of Obama's speech for a long, long standing ovation.

The President told us that during Remsburg's tenth -- yes, tenth -- deployment to Afghanistan, he was nearly killed by a bomb. Remsburg was put into a coma by the blast, endured dozens of surgeries, and is only now regaining the ability to speak, slowly and painfully.

"He never gives up and he does not quit," Obama said to the cheering assembly.

That was the concluding message of the President's speech.

But what did it mean? Like every other aspect of Obama's address, the answer is ambivalent and vague.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to tear up at the sight of the brave and somehow optimistic Sergeant Remsburg, clapping by patting his heart, standing close to his loving and protective dad.

But what does his experience mean for us, as Americans? What are we to take from his bravery and his sacrifice? And this war, the longest war in American history, that partially chewed him up?

Obama announced the end of that war in 2014, but not entirely. We will draw down troops, he said. But not all of them will come home. We will have a force to train the Afghani military, according to Obama. And we will have a force for security and counter-terrorism.

Remsburg's fellow soldiers will still be in harm's way. And so, in their own way will all of those other revered, fawned-over ordinary Americans living in these uncertain times.
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Photo: Screenshot via C-SPAN.org.