Why Even Republicans Loved Obama's State of the Union
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First, Obama recalled Kennedy — a strong, unapologetic liberal. “Partners” evokes working together, an implicit attack on conservative stonewalling, while “for progress” makes clear his progressive direction. “To improve it is the task of us all” evokes the progressive theme that we’re all in this together with the goal of improving the common good. “The grit and determination of the American people” again says we work together, while incorporating the “grit and determination” stereotype of Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps — overcoming a “grinding war” and “grueling recession.” He specifically and wisely did not pin the war and recession on the Bush era republicans, as he reasonably could have. That would have divided Democrats from Republicans. Instead, he treated war and recession as if they were forces of nature that all Americans joined together to overcome. Then he moved on seamlessly to the “millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded,” which makes rewarding that work and determination “the task of us all.”
This turn in discourse started working last year. Empathy and social responsibility as central American values reappeared in spades in the 2012 campaign right after Mitt Romney made his 47 percent gaff, that 47 percent of Americans were not succeeding because they were not talking personal responsibility for their lives. This allowed Obama to reframe people out of work, sick, injured, or retired as hard working and responsible and very much part of the American ideal, evoking empathy for them from most other Americans. It allowed him to meld the hard working and struggling Americans with the hard working and just getting by Americans into a progressive stereotype of hard working Americans in general who need help to overcome external forces holding them back. It is a patriotic stereotype that joins economic opportunity with equality, freedom and civil rights: “if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”
It is an all-American vision:
“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.”
“Our unfinished task” refers to citizens — us — as ruling the government, not the reverse. “We” are making the government do what is right. To work “on behalf of the many, and not just the few.” And he takes from the progressive vision the heart of the conservative message. “We” require the government to encourage free enterprise, reward individual initiative, and provide opportunity for all. It is the reverse of the conservative view of the government ruling us. In a progressive democracy, the government is the instrument of the people, not the reverse.
In barely a minute, he provided a patriotic American progressive vision that seamlessly adapts the heart of the conservative message. Within this framework comes the list of policies, each presented with empathy for ideal Americans. In each case, we, the citizens who care about our fellow citizens, must make our imperfect government do the best it can for fellow Americans who do meet, or can with help meet, the American ideal.
With this setting of the frame, each item on the list of policies fits right in. We, the citizens, use the government to protect us and maximally enable us all to make use of individual initiative and free enterprise.
The fact that the policy list was both understood and approved of by 77 percent of those watching means that one-third of those who did not vote for the president have assimilated his American progressive moral vision.