There was more to President Obama’s State of the Union speech last Tuesday night than met the eye or ear. For the president tried to meet the historical moment of 2014 while colliding with the trends that define America in 2014.
The speech contained about 7,000 words, and most of them were consistent with the sonata-form structure that the occasion warrants, if not rewards: an exposition consisting of a list of achievements and then a list of goals; a development theme with a plea for political unity and then an assertion of presidential prerogative or initiative; followed by a recapitulation celebrating America’s heroes and its enduring promise.
But buried in those 7,000 words, many of them unremarkable and unsurprising, were five that matter, for they define the Obama years even as the president seeks to redefine American politics. Those five words: “Opportunity is who we are.”
With that one sentence, itself in some ways unremarkable, the president made a common notion -- America is the land of opportunity -- into the centerpiece of his administration. And because that notion seems so common, the significance of the statement, and the prominence it has in the Obama administration, may have been lost.
The word “opportunity” does not appear in the mission statement of the nation (the Declaration of Independence), nor in the bylaws of the country (the Constitution). It does not appear in important, defining and transforming presidential speeches such as the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural or John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. And yet it appears more than 10 times in Obama’s State of the Union speech.
Opportunity may have been the unsung soundtrack of the American experience, but -- this may strike many as a surprise -- it has not been the overarching theme of American politics.
The American Revolution was about freedom from colonial rule and dynastic tyranny. The Civil War was about preserving the Union and freeing the slaves. The Gilded Age was about building a manufacturing powerhouse. The New Deal was about economic survival. World War II and the Cold War were about ideological struggle and global power politics.
But Obama wants to stamp his era with the notion of opportunity. There were strains of that concept in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the 50th anniversary of which will be marked this spring; that was what the War on Poverty and many of the other initiatives of the Johnson years were about. A subtheme of Ronald Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric was the conviction that an unfettered market would provide economic opportunity. Bill Clinton’s focus on the middle class was implicitly a paean to opportunity.
But the Johnson administration had a divisive war, a civil rights struggle and a youth rebellion to share its attention; the Reagan administration was consumed with national defense and tax overhaul struggles; and the Clinton years ended with a lengthy struggle over impeachment and a national debate about the difference between personal behavior and political performance. None of them focused on single parents, the working poor or women to the extent that Obama has -- and did again Tuesday night.
In his Tuesday speech and his Wednesday appearance here in Pittsburgh, the president’s focus was pre-eminently on creating opportunity -- or, more precisely, preserving opportunity. Where Dwight Eisenhower had to contend with a missile gap and Johnson with a credibility gap, Obama’s major preoccupation is the wage gap and its cousin, the opportunity gap.
Obama’s speech began with an upbeat reassessment of the recovery from the 2008 economic debacle, but the president believes -- and academic studies have confirmed -- that the recovery he has presided over has been at best uneven. Emmanuel Saez, the Berkeley economist who is perhaps the most prominent chronicler of the economic gap, points out that in the first two years of the recovery, the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of the income gains across the country.
The president vowed to “reverse these trends,” though he understated the difficulty of doing that.
Speeches alone cannot accomplish it, and he faces a divided Congress that is in no mood and has no apparent ability to overhaul the tax code. The president spoke bravely -- opponents and some allies believe he spoke dangerously -- of unilateral executive action, saying that “wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
But even his most dramatic action, an executive order to raise the minimum wage for some government contract workers, would have little effect and carries substantial risk. Of all the divisions in American political life -- between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, young and old, working and retired -- none is nearly as important nor as enduring as the division between the legislative and executive branches.
By declaring the Congress not merely inconvenient but unnecessary, Obama displayed the audacity of political hopelessness rather than the audacity of hope he once celebrated -- and it is an audacity that will make cringe even some Democratic lawmakers who support the president.
These Democrats, many of whom are not retiring in January 2017, know that Obama eventually will be succeeded by a Republican president who may use the Obama precedents in ways they will revile. Obama’s actions may be remembered as opportunism in service of opportunity.
Though the term “opportunity society” has bipartisan appeal, it has Republican roots and both reflects and causes deep partisan rancor. Liberals and conservatives agree that economic opportunity should be a central element of American politics and of the American identity. They differ bitterly on how to achieve it, and on fundamental questions:
Should opportunity be measured at the beginning or at the end of the process? Should politics focus on whether Americans receive relatively equal opportunities to launch their lives, or whether Americans have relatively equal outcomes during and at the end of their lives?
The president may have thought he was addressing a basic issue in American life during Tuesday’s speech. He has in fact rekindled a basic American debate. The legacy of the Obama years, and the opportunities offered to those born in the Obama years, depends on how that debate is conducted and whether it is concluded.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.