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.