Day 13: State of the Union: Politics of the Impossible
Obama has always been a straight talker. He still wants to work together on bipartisan priorities. How can he still think this is possible? Surely, it is impossible. I want to suggest in this post that we can learn something from Obama: don’t settle for the possible. Obama said as we look to the future, we should see opportunity not peril. Here I thought about how the Hillary campaign uses the politics of fear to sustain the politics of supposed electability (a strategy that is losing traction in the face of recent polls). Obama asks whether we will respond with fear, turning inward and against one another or with confidence and power (the road between Nietzschean ressentiment and will to life).
In asking us to reflect what is best not what is worse in us, Obama made this speech a bookend to the campaign rhetoric. Not red and blue states but the United States. But it sure feels like red and blue states. Kim Davis was at the State of the Union Address thanks to Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and the Family Research Council who passed the word along that she was looking for tickets. So was Mat Staver, her lawyer who has built his name on anti-LGBT rights activism, as reported by the HRC last fall. Also there was Everett Piper, the President of Oklahoma Wesleyan President who mocked students for seeking safe spaces, saying in a letter that the university is not a daycare. Obama’s guests included an drug policy reform advocate, James Obergefell (of Obergefell v. Hodges), an Obamacare navigator, a Mexican immigrant, the first female Army Reserve officer to graduate from Ranger school, a Syrian refugee and the CEO of Microsoft (yeah). This list of attendees points to a divided America. This is why I think this speech was aspirational, beyond what is and what is possible.
He did this by speaking directly to the difference. “What role the government should play in making sure the system is not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and richest Americans? The American people have a choice to make.” Earlier in the week Obama took the proverbial gloves off, commenting to Matt Lauer that sure, he could picture Trump as president…in a Saturday night skit. But this speech was not Trump vs. Hillary, it was Hillary vs. Bernie language. Working families need help more than corporations who have had record-profits. “Foodstamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis.” Large corporations escaping taxes through offshore accounts. Rules should work for working families. Obama called out the entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo. He called for change. Again, the speech hearkened back to his campaign rhetoric.
My point is probably not supported by the foreign policy section of the speech, in which Obama said basically, we are so powerful, it’s embarrassing. (No really, we should be embarrassed. He listed things Noam Chomsky lists about our military spending as if they are good things.) My point isn’t even about the specific strategies Obama recommends. Rather, it’s about the way we think about our collective political existence. I think Obama is saying, we should stop being limited by the so-called possible, which plays right into the hands of the status quo. Otherwise, “public life withers.” The argument that says we shouldn’t pursue what is not possible needs to be put to rest. The argument that it’s not possible so don’t aim makes activism always constrained by whatever is already happening. Activism should be producing a new possibility. The line we keep hearing from Hillary supporters about voting for what’s possible because it is better than overshooting and losing will always serve the status quo. And also, that line didn’t work eight years ago.