Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Like last year's, POTUS' SOTA - the President's State of the Union speech - cheered me more than I'd dared hope. He's still standing. The rhythms, the cadences, weren't his best - he seemed to lose confidence in some of his veiled barbs as he said them - but compared to the weird mix of ingenuous piety and goofily smiling fear-mongering of the official Republican respondent, he seemed in charge, forward-thinking, adult.

One rhetorical misstep surprised me, though I haven't seen the pundits pounce on it (not that I've searched much). It's the closing, when he told of the American whose small company, Center Rock, made the drill-bit used in the rescue of the Chilean miners last year. We haven't heard about him because he came right home, not wanting to distract from the joy of the rescue.

[L]ater, one of his employees said of the rescue, "We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things."

We do big things.

From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future.

We're a nation that says, "I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company." "I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree." "I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try." "I'm not sure how we'll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we'll get there. I know we will."

We do big things.

The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it's because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.

I'm all for big things, but how can one not hear "but a small company/country" as the phrase is repeated? I'm not a fan of overweening American exceptionalism, but somehow I missed the cocksure attitude of "we're the envy of all nations and the apple of God's eye" characteristic of SOTU speeches. For all sorts of reasons I appreciate the attention to "ordinary people" (and it was moving to see the triangle of Biden, Boehner and Obama in this context), but why allow even an echo of "small"? Perhaps it's the adult thing to recognize that, in the 21st century, Americans' best hope and our best contribution will be to be like those ordinary people who do great things without renouncing the value of the ordinary, indeed in the service of the ordinary, the decent, the human.

Maybe it's not a rhetorical misstep at all, but a quite deliberate suggestion that the step away from nationalist megalomania is a step back to our best selves. Maybe those who fetishize the word "exceptional" will hear this. I fear that those for whom it is not ordinary human dreams and decencies but divine favor (you heard this in Congressman Ryan's opening preachment) that makes America elect among the nations won't buy it. But are they as numerous and immovable as they want us to believe? Let's hope Obama's right. We know that even most American Evangelicals mean by "Christian America" something like the culture of ordinary effort, initiative and mutual care that he described.

1 comment:

mark said...

Similar analysis by Stanley Fish:

“We do big things,” one of the company’s employees proudly declared, and Obama ran with the declaration as if America, rather than being the most powerful nation in the world and one of the largest, was the little engine that could.

In effect he transformed the America of 2011 into the America of 1776, a small band of soldiers and patriots who did bigger things than anyone thought they could do because, as he said, they were driven by an idea. It is the idea of America, not her immense wealth or power, “that endures,” he said, and it is an idea that has been with us “from the earliest days of our founding.”
This is Obama’s version of American exceptionalism, which is for him not the proud, in-your-face doctrine announced by some political figures, but a quiet affirmation of resolution and an abiding faith in a future that can be won. Obama has managed to downsize a rhetoric that can often be bellicose and turn it into a statement that is almost, but not quite, modest. This is the voice of power that need not declare itself and is therefore all the more impressive.