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.