Putting Americans to work and reigniting the nation’s doddering economy were at the heart of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address before Congress on Tuesday evening. But the emotional center occurred toward the end of his hour-long speech when he dealt with the issue of gun violence.
“What I’ve said tonight matters little if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resource–our children,” he said to loud approval from both sides of the aisle. “It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different.”
Part of the “common sense reform” he proposed would require background checks on buyers to minimize the possibility of guns falling into the wrong hands and new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. “Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned,” he continued.
This issue, he boomed repeatedly, “deserves a vote,” with a special plea to the Republican members of Congress, and he cited all the recent main venues of tragedy, from Colorado to Wisconsin.
How all this will play out depends so much on how each senator and representative relates to his or her constituents. Even so, the proposal hardly gets to the core of the homicides resulting from handguns, which, for inner city residents, is a perennial menace.
Toward the top of his speech, there was a hint that he might specifically address a few issues of pertinence to African-Americans in referring to the North Star that was a beacon for runaway slaves. “A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs–that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” he said, but, alas, it was merely a metaphor.
The president did, however, mention AIDS, if not HIV, which continues to be a plague among African-Americans. Likewise, when he touched on the right to vote, it was clearly a nod to Black Americans who, in too many instances during the last election, encountered situations that were reminiscent of Jim Crow restrictions.
“We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home,” Obama said after citing elements of his foreign policy. “That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. When any Americans–no matter where they live or what their party–are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.”
This moment was given additional poignancy when he noted the presence of Desiline Victor, a resident of North Miami, in the gallery. He said that the country would do well to follow her example. “When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours,” Obama began. “And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say.
“Hour after hour,” the president continued, “a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read ‘I Voted.’” Again, there was an eruption of applause and when she was notified that the president was talking about her, she joined the applause, smiling and clapping along with the crowd.
These emotional highpoints were tethered to Obama’s very serious concern about climate change as well as manufacturing, infrastructure, clean energy and education, all of which were tied to his overarching desire to improve the employment picture. On foreign policy, there was, of course, the ongoing problem of terrorism, our troops abroad and the threat of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. It was through an allusion that he addressed the pressing matter of drones that are targeting suspected terrorists without any oversight from Congress.
“That is why my administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations,” he said. “Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remain consistent with our laws and systems of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
The lack of transparency, particularly in targeting American citizens suspected of being terrorists, has been a grave concern for advocates of human rights.
If the speech wasn’t exactly vintage Obama, it was awash with his pragmatism, as well as his penchant to weave in bits of poetry and alliteration–as he did so winningly in his recent inaugural address with “Seneca Falls, to Stonewall to Selma”–it did have those moments of resonance, especially when dealing with the plight of millions of undocumented immigrants and the possible path to citizenship, or his intention to continue to reach across the aisle to his Republican adversaries.
Much of what he proposed in terms of closing the deficit gap, bolstering the economy, tax cuts and spending plans will be met with stiff opposition, sometimes from his own party members. But he knows he’s the final arbiter with the trump card of an executive order, and there are many Americans, particularly his most loyal supporters, who are hoping that when he talks about action and executive orders, that some of that may meet some of their unfulfilled dreams.