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.