President Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2013. | Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy - Photo: 2013

Obama Retains Audacity of Hope

By Ernest Corea* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) – Hostile and sometimes potentially humiliating treatment of some of President Barack Obama’s nominees or potential nominees for high office by opposing legislators provides a foretaste of what might lie ahead for legislation that will be formulated in line with the national agenda he outlined in his State of the Union Address on February 12.

His proposals cannot simply spring into life and become the law of the land without expert and empathetic management and implementation by senior officials, primarily members of his second term Cabinet that he is now in the process of putting together.

Some weeks ago, Ambassador Susan Rice, the outstanding US Permanent Representative at the UN, who was widely considered to be Obama’s first choice to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, was verbally mauled on the basis of gossip, innuendo, and misrepresentation. Rice withdrew her name from consideration for the position.

More recently, another Obama nominee, (former) Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, was subjected to barely concealed enmity – mainly from fellow-Republicans – during the required committee hearing on his suitability to serve as Secretary (Minister) of Defence. Hagel, a scholarly and prescient politician, is a decorated war veteran who served as an enlisted soldier, not from the officer class.

Hagel survived the committee hearing but when his nomination went before the full Senate on February 12 the numbers were stacked against him, and a vote on his confirmation was postponed. This was the first time that a potential Defence Secretary was filibustered, and only the third time that a presidential nominee was subjected to a Senate filibuster.

Speculation on what fate awaits John Brennan, an intelligence professional who is widely respected by his peers, when his nomination as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is put to a vote, is less than upbeat. Brennan has served effectively as a special adviser at the White House for the past four years.

Meanwhile, Obama’s national agenda awaits formulation as legislation and submission to the legislature where, it would appear, some legislators are sharpening their claws in anticipation. Aside from the hostility shown to some of his nominees, an indication of what lie ahead was provided when, a couple of days after the State of the Union Address, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives killed a proposal for a 0.5 per cent increase in pay for federal government employees – the third consecutive pay freeze.

In Top Form

The State of the Union Address is a report from the President to the legislature and, via mass media, to the people. The president’s report is mandated by the constitution which states at Article II, Section 3: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The Address is delivered to a joint session of the House of Representatives and Senate. The president’s report was known for many years as the President’s Annual Message to Congress. President Roosevelt named it the State of the Union Address in 1934 and that title prevails.

These Addresses range from the mundane to the inspiring, depending on the nation’s circumstances as well as the goals of the president delivering the Address and his talent, or lack of it, as a public speaker.  Obama came to this Address after a decisive election victory and he very quickly showed that actions do have consequences.

He was at the top of his form both as a speaker and as leader with ideas to share. Pugnacious on some points, assertively impassioned on others, he appeared to be completely at ease, exuding both self-confidence and commitment to the agenda he was spelling out.

In The Audacity of Hope, one of the books that helped him lay the groundwork for his first presidential run, Obama articulated the need to create a national constituency who would “see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interest of others.” At the political level, such a constituency emerged during the 2012 presidential election and carried him to victory and office on their shoulders. In his State of the Union Address, he urged that a similar constituency should, using the same fundamental principles, direct its energies to re-creating, renewing, and re-energies a societal contract that would usher in a period of national renewal.

As reported in the official transcript, he said: “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class. It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, and no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, or who you love.

“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.”

Package of Proposals

Some of the key elements of Obama’s national agenda were the return home of 34,000 troops from Afghanistan within the next 12 months; action on comprehensive immigration reform based on the proposals being crafted, separately, in the House of Representatives and the Senate; and science-based correctives in the area of climate change, both by way of mitigation and adaptation.

On climate change, he urged that proposals supported by Republicans including Senator John McCain, whom he trounced at the 2008 presidential election, should be revived. He urged, as well, that a balanced approached be taken to meet the country’s energy needs, with both renewable and non-renewable resources being used.

For the benefit of the next generation, he proposed a system of universal, first-rate pre-school education that could be undertaken in partnerships involving the federal and state governments. Moving up the ladder, he sought an investment of $1 billion to set up 15 new institutes whose research would help to create new manufacturing technologies. The exercise would follow the lines of a pioneering experiment that had already proved itself in the state of Ohio.

Keeping in mind the efforts at voter suppression during the presidential election, the development of suppression techniques that affected working class voters and minorities, and the incredibly long queues in which voters were compelled to wait for several hours to cast their votes – or grow tired of waiting, leave the queue and go home, this being compelled to disenfranchise themselves.

The longest queues were in areas considered favorable to Obama, and he promised to “fix the problem” during his victory speech last November. He will appoint a bi-partisan commission to propose measures that could end or reduce all such electoral anomalies.

Awaiting a Vote

Obama’s most effective use of rhetoric was in his comments on gun violence. He was speaking in the long shadow of the Newtown “baby massacre” where a gunman equipped with a military style weapon killed some 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The fact that most of the victims of this wanton act of gun violence created a special kind of outrage and before long several legislative proposals for managing gun ownership without depriving gun owners of their constitutional right to bear arms had been drafted. The gun industry’s lobby moved in at that point and up to now none of the proposals including those from Obama had been brought up for a vote in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Some survivors of gun violence including former Congresswoman Gaby Giffords, as well as grieving family members of those mown down, had special places in the audience when Obama spoke. Referring to them or their family members who were killed by name, and using the technique of incremental repletion Obama urged that draft legislation to control gun violence should be put up for voting.

He said: “Overwhelming majorities of Americans – Americans who believe in the Second Amendment – have come together around common-sense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough 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 these police chiefs, they’re tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.

“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. (Applause.) Now, if you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun – more than a thousand.

“One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house. Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence.

“They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. (Applause.) Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. (Applause.) The families of Newtown deserve a vote. (Applause.) The families of Aurora deserve a vote. (Applause.) The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence –- they deserve a simple vote. (Applause.)”

True. But will they get what they deserve? [IDN-InDepthNews – February 16, 2013]

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of and Editorial Adviser to IDN-InDepthNews as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

Ernest Corea’s previous IDN articles:

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