President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address, delivered on January 28, drew some applause, some grumbles, but mostly a lot of largely unstudied indifference. Not only from listening legislators in the Capitol and the paid pundits of Washington DC. But also from folks beyond—some well beyond—the Capital Beltway. Apparently the President’s speech, for them, lacked a galvanizing theme, lacked a convincing new conservative or liberal direction, or lacked a brilliant display of commanding leadership.
Perhaps Americans have tired of hearing about economic opportunity, fiscal policy, education, immigration and national security—major topics of the President’s fifth State of the Union speech—and significant topics of just about every presidential State of the Union Message of this century, of the twentieth century, and of the nineteenth century. Indeed, they are topics that date back to the founding of the nation, the beginning of the American experiment of government. That these matters have not been settled for all time and all circumstances says a great deal about their complexity and about the nature of American experiment of government. The nation’s founders insisted on checks and balances over power. They feared a monarch, and limited executive powers. They sought representative government and yet guarded against impulsive legislating. They created a court system, but, intentionally or not, left it to a Supreme Court to define the reach of judicial review.
Just over a half century ago, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy explained that the United States took the decision to go to the moon by the end of the 1960s and to accomplish similar ambitious goals “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” He asserted they would “organize and measure the best of America’s energies and skills.”
Perhaps it is not possible or desirable to define, for all times and for all circumstances, matters of economic opportunity, fiscal policy, education, immigration, and national security. Or all the immensely complex and controversial issues all attached to healthcare in America.
Such issues are, as President Kennedy saw them, hard issues. And results are difficult to achieve within a system of government deliberately designed against the abuse of power. And yet the State of the Union topics that were treated with immediate indifference have an urgency that should summon America’s best efforts.
Two millennia ago, Rabbi Hillel asked: "If not now, when? If not by us, then by whom?"
In more recent American political times, these same serious questions have been asked again, in quite different political contexts, by Michigan Governor George Romney (in 1963), by President Ronald Reagan (in the 1980s), and by President Obama (in his January State of the Union address).
Indeed, if not now, when? If not by us, then by whom?
This is another of a series of occasional essays by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer and photographer who retired from IndustryWeek as a senior editor in 2006.