SOTU

01.28.14

Obama’s Speech Was Missing Shared Goals for America’s Future

One of the best presidential orators in history, Obama was reduced to the lowly ambition of executive orders. What we really need is a set of common aims all Americans can work toward.

I prefer to burn candles rather than curse the dark. So, I say great. Let this indeed be a year of action. But, it’s going to take more than the president acting on his own, which now appears to be largely the course he has set for 2014.

The irony of the State of the Union address these days is the inverse proportion of media coverage and saturation to public attention and expectation. It seems the more the media fixates and obsesses over every detail, the less attention the public pays and the less they expect anything will change.

It’s the political version of Phil Specter’s Wall of Sound. Massive. But, in this case there’s no harmony, its just white noise. Do we think anything will be remembered? Acted upon? A week from now we will have moved on. Likely to the next debt ceiling crisis.

To his credit, President Obama gives a good speech. And he gave another good one tonight. The tribute to Cory Remsburg, who deployed ten times, was indeed a signature moment that will be remembered. But only because of his powerful story. What else will be remembered from this speech? Obama ranks among our greatest presidential orators. How sad that such a great gift should be so diminished. With three years left to his presidency, we are reduced to the lowly ambition of executive orders.

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Watch President Obama's touching tribute to Cory Remsburg.

Of course Obama has been dealt an historically tough hand, and there is plenty of blame to shovel across the political aisle.

But the man upon whose broad shoulders so much expectation and hope was draped (which his campaign happily encouraged), seems now in a permanently slump of reduction. As Slate’s John Dickerson so perfectly and poignantly wrote, “Obama wears the limitations of his office like a shawl.”

Tonight, President Obama stressed the need for action to address our country’s problems, and looks to pursue a unilateral path of executive action. But in our constitutional system, there are limits to what any one branch of government acting alone can accomplish. In these polarized times, there are even stricter limits to what any one party can get done on its own. If we want action equal to our challenges, we have to find a way to move forward together.

A big part of the problem is that we don’t even have any agreed-upon national goals, something most competitive nations have clearly established. Once goals are agreed upon, you can debate about how best to achieve them. But without goals, any enterprise is destined to drift, or worse, not move at all. Which seems an adequate description for where we are today.

Without goals, any enterprise is destined to drift, or worse, not move at all.

That’s why No Labels is calling for a National Strategic Agenda organized around goals that are widely shared across partisan and ideological lines (full disclosure: The Daily Beast’s editor-in-chief John Avlon is a co-founder of No Labels). The American people know where they want their leaders to start: creating 25 million new jobs over the next decade; securing Social Security and Medicare for 75 years; setting the country on a path to a balanced budget by 2030; and achieving energy self-sufficiency by 2035. The question is not whether to do these things, it’s how.

We’ve done it before, even in times of deep division—Social Security and tax reform in the 1980s, budget balance and welfare reform in the 1990s. South of our border, an energetic young president forged an agreement on goals across party lines that helped break decades of gridlock. We can do it now, if we set our minds to it. Let’s spend the next three years identifying shared goals, debating the best means, and forging the broad agreements that effective leadership requires.

A State of the Union speech would be so much more productive and meaningful if a president would stand up and said, “I have worked with leadership on both sides of the political aisle, and while we may not agree on how to get there, we have agreed a national strategic agenda. Goals we all agree are worthy of our great country and the sacrifices and contributions so many of our citizens make every day.”

Shared goals. What a radical thought. Maybe next year, or with a new president in 2016.