One wants to be encouraged. One wishes that a president speaking to the nation in the midst of still-churning economic turmoil could have some words of comfort. Some indication -- some, what was that word, Mr. President? -- hope that the months and years ahead will be better than those we've been enduring. One yearns to bask in that crescendo of unified spirit on which President Barack Obama concluded his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
But the electrons on his teleprompter had barely cooled before the true nature of our nation's challenge became apparent in new electrons heating up the lens on another teleprompter elsewhere in the Capitol.
President Obama spoke of an economy that, although sluggish, is growing. He touted millions of jobs he said were created in the past year, the improved stock market, the healthy corporate profits that have moved the Dow Jones Average back into pre-2008 territory. He praised "the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead" and called for "not a bigger government ... but a smarter government." He talked of promoting "a rising, thriving middle class." Of protecting Social Security and Medicare.
Then, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio followed with a rebuttal emphasizing trillions of dollars in national debt. He condemned "the tax increases and the deficit spending (you) propose." He spoke of an economy that "actually shrank during the last three months of 2012," Of the goal of "middle class prosperity." Of protecting Social Security and Medicare.
So, what we were treated to with this State of the Union address and its aftermath was not so much a compelling vision of the way forward as a commitment to the divisive dysfunction we've grown so accustomed to.
Rubio's speech, clearly written before the address it proposed to rebut and rarely referring to it specifically, offered no sense that Republicans either in the House or the Senate are prepared to work with Democrats in anything other than words. Hours before the president's speech was even delivered, the suburbs' own Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, chief deputy whip of the House, issued thickly political condemnations of Obama's record and "the old Democrat muscle memory" of tax increases that he expected to be either a subtle or overt theme of the president's economic policies.
For his part, the president provided precious little to attract his opponents' cooperation. He outlined a litany of government programs, big and small, with the promise that somehow they will not cost us anything. The results of the election gave him leverage that provides the hope of movement on immigration policy, but on matters from domestic gun control to foreign policy, his themes seemed more calculated to please his friends than to invite the participation of reluctant opponents.
Sure, these contrasting speeches shared the verbiage of cooperation.
"We may do different jobs and wear different uniforms and hold different views than the person beside us, but as Americans, we all share the same proud title. We are citizens," concluded the Democratic president.
"Despite our differences, I know that both Republicans and Democrats love America. I pray we can come together to solve our problems," concluded the Republican senator.
But neither gave any indication that such platitudes are anything more than lip service.
In another age, one might have been able to assess President Obama's speech for what it seemed to strive to be -- a call to mutual sacrifice, to action and to collaboration in the advancement of an economy that has improved all too slowly and in addressing other problems. But the political spirit of our own age seems insistent on emphasizing divisions rather than connections. It is the wrong spirit, sadly. There is still time for all parties to change that, but on this night we saw precious little evidence that anyone will step up to do it.