President Obama stood before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night in the shadow of the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and on the heels of one of the most acrimonious sessions of Congress in American history. These two events mark the ugly turn that our politics have taken. We are divided, perhaps to a greater extent than at any point in decades. We identify more and more with a region, a party, and an ideology, and less with the nation as a whole. As we narrow our identifications, our politics have become more dysfunctional. More and more we feel that other groups are enemies to be demonized rather than partners with whom we can compromise and work. In a culture in which political strategies are cultivated to intentionally encumber our governing institutions for political gain, opposition now goes beyond principled dissent and instead tries to destroy the ability of others to govern, whatever the real cost to our nation’s health. National unity and purpose are sapped as we continue to fragment the country, making it impossible to tackle the titanic challenges we face as a nation and as a world.
It is for these reasons that I believe that the most important part of President Obama’s speech was his call for a renewal of national unity. He called on us to remember that we are not a collection of parties or races, but one nation with a shared purpose, one people pledging allegiance to the same flag. We are part of something larger than ourselves.
The challenges we face are massive. The ones he outlined were, among others, tackling the deficit, educating the next generation, and re-investing in infrastructure and technology. We are doomed to failure if we confront these challenges with anything less than our united strength. Obama, I think, recognizes this, which is why he has made reconciliation such a central theme of his presidency. Agree with him or not, he recognizes that we are destined to fail if we do not act as one people. His attempt to get us to understand how much we share in common was what made him a star in 2004, and what made this speech timely and eloquent rather than just informative.
“The state of our union is strong.” That is the venerable phrase with which President Obama closed his address. A confidence booster to be sure, but one also laced with symbolic meaning. It was a reaffirmation that this is still “our union,” that the ties of blood and ink, pride and patriotism still bind this polyglot country just as strongly as they did in the past. We should not forget how hard it was to achieve this. For decades after the founding of our nation, the way to refer to the United States was “the United States are” rather than “The United States is.” It was thought that this confederacy of different states, races, languages, and religions was destined to remain a union of groups rather than a single national entity. No one could have fully foreseen the apparently miraculous events that came next. Through the tests of war, immigration, and civil rights, a phenomenon never before achieved by humanity took shape. A disparate group of people, sharing nothing but the desire to live as equals and be free, was bound up in a single national identity. As a nation, we achieved feats thought to be impossible. On Tuesday, Obama called on us to remember and recapture that idea. He reminded us that, as impossible as our challenges look now, if we meet them with our united national strength, we can defeat them just as we have done in the past. It is time to remember that we aren’t the Democratic Party of America or the “Tea Party Express” of America but the United States of America. Obama said that we need to win the future. The future is ours if we just reach for it together.
Blinderman is a member of the class of 2014.