On Tuesday of last week, President Obama delivered the annual State of the Union (SOTU) address to a Joint Session of Congress. And then on Thursday, the Republican candidates for their party's nomination held their sixth televised debate. The contrasts in tone couldn't have been sharper, defining the deep partisan divide that has tragically paralyzed our ability to address critical issues facing our country.
For his part, the President sought to frame his SOTU remarks as confident, optimistic, and forward looking. He challenged those who promoted despair and cynicism, noting the progress that has been made in cutting unemployment in half, rescuing America's auto industry, and passing health care reform that has enabled 17 million more Americans to receive coverage. While acknowledging that real problems of income inequality remain, he noted that with investments in education, job training, and continued Wall Street reform, progress could be made.
The President also used the address to challenge the notion being propagated by some that America is in decline all over the world. It is undeniable that we face new challenges from a deeply unsettled Middle East, from an emboldened Russia, an aggressive China, and the persistent threat of terrorism. But he noted that in the face of these challenges, working with allies, we have made progress in addressing climate change and stopping the spread of Ebola, in securing agreements to stop Iran's nuclear program, promote trade with Asian partners, and in opening relations with Cuba. He concluded, that despite diplomatic setbacks, persistent and de-stabilizing conflicts, and the continuing threat of terrorism, America's standing has, in fact, improved in almost every country in the world.
As is the case in every SOTU address, the President proposed that Congress take action in a number of areas that he maintained would build on the progress we have made and create a more prosperous and secure America in the future. But his most compelling remarks came near the end of his speech when he returned to a theme that has shaped his entire public life—the need to bring an end to "the rancor and suspicion" that has divided us and inhibited bipartisan cooperation.
He began by urging office holders to "reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion". He went on to note that
"This isn't a matter of political correctness. This is a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal, it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith...When politicians insult Muslims...that doesn't make us safer...It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country."
He closed with this appeal: "The future we want—opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kid—all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together...if we can have rational, constructive debates...if we fix our politics. [This] doesn't mean we have to agree on everything...[But] it doesn't work if we think our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America...Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise...Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention...We have to change the system to reflect our better selves".
These concluding thoughts struck me as prescient as I listened to the tone and content of the GOP debate that followed the SOTU just two days latter. If the President sought to elevate our political discourse and seek compromise, many of those competing for the Republican nomination were clearly moving in the opposite direction. Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stood out as exceptions, but their voices were often drown out by the harsh and unyielding rhetoric of their competitors.
Five of the seven candidates (all but Kasich and Bush) either rejected new Muslim immigrants or questioned the wisdom of admitting them. Trump calling Muslim immigrants a "great Trojan Horse" that would allow terrorists entry into America.
The two hour slug-fest featured an abundance of intramural squabbling. Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz were at war with one another, as were New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. While blood was drawn, the combatants saved their harshest and most demeaning jabs for President Obama.
Rubio, for example, had this to say: "Barack Obama does not believe that America is a great global power. Barack Obama believes that America is an arrogant global power that needs to be cut down to size. And that's how you get a foreign policy where we cut deals with our enemies like Iran and we betray our allies like Israel and we gut our military and we go around the world like he has done on 10 separate occasions and apologized for America."
Trump added, "Our country is being run by incompetent people...We are a stupid country laughed at by people all over the world."
And the most boorish insult of the night was delivered by Christie when, speaking of the President, whom he once embraced, thanking him for the support he offered to his hurricane ravaged state, said "We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall."
The entire affair was a sad display of our politics at its worst, made all the more troubling by the fact that the two candidates (Kasich and Bush) who continually attempted to elevate the discourse, are, at this point, polling near the bottom of the GOP pack.
There are, to be sure, legitimate challenges that Republicans and Democrats can offer to the President's performance, to date. The Affordable Care Act needs fixing. Not enough has been done to correct income inequality, the racial divide, and widespread corrosive government surveillance. There have been failures in foreign policy, too. We mishandled the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and while the P5+1 agreement with Iran was an achievement, we should have been more attentive to the concerns of anxious Arab allies who felt sidelined and betrayed by their exclusion from the process.
But all these efforts could have been advanced had there been constructive bipartisan cooperation. And, even now, they can and should be discussed without the rancorous and divisive rhetoric that makes forward progress impossible. As the president noted in his State of the Union, the fact that the tone of politics hasn't changed is one of his lasting regrets. But "it takes two to tango" and from the performance of Trump and company, the other side doesn't appear ready to end the state of our dis-union.