Jon Meacham on the State of the Union

Charles Dickens had it right. In the first lines of his “A Tale of Two Cities,” he taught us that it was the best of times and the worst of times. He wasn’t hedging or overwriting. He was noting that, when you think about it, any era can seem that way, for every age is marked by greatness and by misery. He knew then what we know now: that the world is always suffused with tragedy and mystery, and reality will never finally, fully conform to our purposes.

I thought about Dickens’ words this week as I listened to President Obama’s State of the Union address, which is, depending on events, an overture in which we have now heard all the notes we are likely to hear again in the next 24 months.

It was a good speech — probably the best he could have given in the world in which we live. But it was also a reminder of the limits of politics. This is not the president’s fault — if anything, he should be credited with recognizing reality and trying to make the best of the world as he finds it. On the good-news side, the president was practical, straightforward and relentless in his realism. Everything he proposed, from clean-energy technology to high-speed rail, was linked to some great American achievement — the transcontinental railroad, the interstates, child labor laws, the Apollo program. We’ve done it before, he was saying; we can do it again. And when he said that we should “fix what needs fixing and move forward,” he made it, I believe, more difficult for Republicans and Tea Partiers to reduce him to caricature as a socialistic usurper.

But here’s the bad news: the system in Washington does not really allow for this kind of historic boldness outside certain acceptable conversational and political confines. The president’s great legislative achievement, the health care reform, was a landmark, but it was not truly radical. Universal coverage, closing the gap between rich and poor, effective campaign and lobbying reform, sensible climate and gun legislation — all these things, while close to the president’s heart, are victims of a necessary pragmatism that is at once a virtue and a vice. I wish it were different. So, in his day, did FDR, who once chided a young liberal who expressed disappointment in social progress by saying that the longer he had been in that office, the more he had learned that shouting from the rooftop does not alone get things done.

So while President Obama has now made it difficult for the Republican opposition to be reflexively negative, the whole enterprise was a reminder that there is an establishment party in Washington with two wings, not a party system that allows for more radical possibilities.  And in that sense, if you expect great things of your government, the State of the Union 2011 suggests we are hardly living in the best of times.

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Comments

  • Tom Emmert

    Jon, you claim “On the good-news side, the president was practical, straightforward and relentless in his realism.”

    Well, excuse me, but as head of the American household, his first responsibility is to live within his means, to keep a roof over our heads, and not to squander our treasure on glittery new gadgets like high-speed rail. Where is the business plan that any bank would demand, that collected fares would support operation and maintenance of such a complex system, LET ALONE AMORTIZE THE INITIAL COST? And this is just ONE of a dozen proposed “investments”.

    How can you claim this is “practical”? Seems highly fanciful to me!

  • David F., N.A.

    If you’re truly a liberal, wake up and smell the facts.

    If it walks like a Republican (Summers/Sperling), quacks like a Republican (Geihtner), then it sure as hell ain’t a Democrat. Rationalize all you want, but Obama has a conservative agenda. Instead of taking control of healthcare (single payer, public option, Medicare for over 55), he gives the insurance companies more customers. And who’s going to pay for all this? Certainly not the insurance companies – it’s us tax payers, that’s who. (Oh, but the healthcare companies don’t like this, so Obama must be fighting for America. What a joke.) Finance reform did absolutely nothing to fix TBTF or restore Glass-Steagall walls (which was a campaign promise). (Oh, but the banks don’t like this, so Obama must be fighting for America. What a joke.) And now, just a month after he gave the rich over $400,000,000,000, he’s hinting at social security cuts. (What a joke.)

    Ok, let’s assume for a second that Obama’s hands are tied and he can only sign the bills that are place on his desk, but then why did he let the Bush administration off the hook for illegal wiretapping? Why did he let the Bush administration off the hook for illegal torture? Why did he let the Bush administration off the hook for illegal conservative judge stacking? Why did he let the Bush administration for illegally outing a spy? This list goes on and on.

    Since Obama claims to be a Democrat and he apparently condones wiretapping and torture (among other crimes), does this mean that all Democrats who vote for him also condones these crimes? How could a liberal, in his or her right mind (by looking at the facts without rationalizations), vote for this poser again? Think about it.

  • Chris Eirschele

    Mr. Meacham, Why did you not say these things this morning on Joe Scarborough’s show? Because this is not how you sounded then.
    I force myself to watch that show to make myself listen to a Republican’s view, I don’t like it sometimes I even hate it. But I find pockets of relief when journalists and writers, like yourself, provide the balance. Of course, I understand the difficulty in getting a word in, but that is why you are there. Right?

  • Mikeanderson611

    I agree with telling Obama ‘no on high speed trains’. European HS trains work like clocks because they rebuilt the old trains after wwII. Sorry, but we just don’t have the coin to pay for new trains/electrical infrastructure now. Note we ditched most trains after wwII, for major highways and truck delivery. Its a little late for that idea, sort of like solar cell industrial development congress gave away in the ’70s by telling Exxon to oversee its development-talk about the fox guarding the hen house! Better to feed the hungary out there and develop near-by home agriculture and move off of mass Industrial Food Manufacturing which is slowly poisoning us.

  • Mkcs2000

    It is not the sail but the unseen wind that moves the ship.
    It is always easy to paint a rosy picture when things are not that great.
    When the President said that we should “fix what needs fixing and move forward,”-very easily said.
    how can you do that? There is no easy answer for that. It sounds too good to be true
    It is not like putting the raw Popcorn packet inside the microwave and waiting to pop up.
    And Americans are used to using high sounding words.