Like laundry lists and New Year's resolutions, most presidential
State of the Union addresses are discarded from the memory bank shortly
after they're delivered. President Bush's now-famous "axis of evil" phrase,
which he invoked in last year's speech to describe Iraq, Iran and North
Korea, is a notable exception. Then the president was riding high in the
polls, and it seemed he embodied America's 9-11-induced sense of unity and
purpose. Now, the country's mood has changed dramatically.
With the nation on the brink of war with Iraq, and the economy
sluggishly recovering from a recession and an abysmal bear market, many
Americans have lost confidence in the president -- and themselves. Worse,
Democrats, stung by their poor showing in the fall elections, are doing all
they can to stoke the fires of discontent in the hopes it will improve their
electoral chances come 2004.
Given this gloomy scenario, is there anything the president
might do to re-instill a sense of unity among Americans? The president is
expected to lay out his case against Saddam Hussein, while trying to calm
Americans' jitters about the shaky economic recovery. He will make a pitch
for tax cuts, Medicare and Social Security reform, prescription-drug
coverage for seniors and a new program for faith-based groups to receive
federal funding to provide community services to the poor and others. But
none of these is likely to inspire the commitment and sacrifice the nation
needs at this moment in history.
Americans don't need yet another catalogue of political promises
of what the government is going to do for them. Most of us view these
pledges with a healthy dose of skepticism, no matter how sincerely
delivered. Even if the president means every word, there's no assurance he
can deliver with a sharply divided Congress having the final say.
So why not forego the political grab bag and focus instead on
trying to inspire Americans to live up to their promise as the most
well-endowed and gifted people in the history of the world?
The president should give a speech that focuses on what it means
to be American. For a time after the World Trade Center collapsed and the
Pentagon burned, we seemed to understand the importance of national unity.
We knew that we had fanatical enemies out to destroy us, but we also knew we
would survive because we embody an ideal of liberty and opportunity that is
too powerful to be crushed by those who represent only hatred, intolerance
We knew that we would be called on to make sacrifices and that
some would be asked to make the greatest sacrifice of all by giving their
lives to protect the rest of us. But we also understood that Americans have
always met the demand for selflessness and bravery.
In the aftermath of 9-11, we also came to realize that for all
the talk of multiculturalism and diversity, what really matters is not what
makes one American different from another but what we hold in common. Our
failure in recent years to transmit a sense of national identity to all
American youngsters in our public schools needs urgent redress, and the
president could use his bully pulpit next week to support a movement to
promote patriotism and civic education in our schools.
Instead of viewing the State of the Union as an opportunity to
shore up his political base or reach out to new voters, the president could
take the chance to speak about first principles. He could give a speech
about the meaning of democracy and the importance of extending democracy to
all people, everywhere. He could talk about the free market and why, even
when we encounter cyclical retractions, the free market promises greater
prosperity for more people than any other system. He could talk about our
civic duties, responsibilities and obligations, and encourage us to become
better citizens and community members.
Wouldn't it be nice, just once, for a president to address his
"fellow Americans" and mean it? Perhaps if our leaders treated us as
citizens rather than consumers, we'd live up to those higher expectations.