Much like most State of the Union addresses, President Obama’s speech this year will be filled with initiatives and proposals that he would like Congress to enact. But this will not be a speech about policy. It will be about Tucson and the soul of the country in the aftermath of the terrible shooting.
Tucson was like a burst dam of emotion in America, revealing a nation desperate for unity and common purpose and moral leadership. So yes, the President will serve up the policies that every president offers in these speeches, but they will function more as a foil for a larger message he needs to communicate.
He will acknowledge the truth in this speech, that ours is a diverse nation filled with different and often opposing perspectives and ideas. But he will tell us that diversity is not a weakness but a strength. He will ask us to embrace humility, to acknowledge that however deeply we hold an opinion, we must make room for people of good will who believe the opposite. He will then ask us not to flatly reject the viewpoints that differ from our own but to listen and learn and respect even if we continue to disagree. He will then show us how those on opposite sides of the spectrum share one fundamental value — they both love America and only want the best for it.
Americans, he will remind us, want to make this one nation out of our diversity. So he will ask us to accept compromise as a positive word that allows us to include our different points of view. And he will tell us that he’s a man of his word and will dedicate his presidency to finding a way to knit together a workable governing philosophy that both respects our differences but still addresses the needs of the American people.
It is often said that the American president is both head of government and head of state. As head of government he must propose policies and work with Congress to pass our laws, and there will certainly be that side to his speech. But in this State of the Union the President must speak as head of state, a leader who articulates for us what we feel but don’t always know how to say. He has shown the ability to speak from our hearts before. His presidency may rest on whether he can do that again.
A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written on American politics and culture for major newspapers and magazines, and is currently the director of the Public Communications department at American University.