Complaints about President Obama’s State of the Union address on both sides of the political divide (which was obscured but not obliterated by the evening’s novel seating arrangements) seemed to miss its point and purpose.

Like every successful speech of its kind, Obama’s message resonated on more than one level. So while he conceded little ground to the right, the president nevertheless sought to draw his adversaries — and even more so the independent voters who temporarily sided with them — into the American story he told.

The meaning of that narrative could scarcely have been clearer. Obama articulated a vision of the nation’s future shaped by an idealistic view of our past, in which government encourages growth, opportunity and the pursuit of happiness by an inventive and industrious people. If that isn’t the whole history of America, it is certainly an appealing theme — and one that contrasts powerfully with the partisan negativity and apocalyptic pessimism voiced by the Republicans.

Gently but persuasively, the president suggested that the electoral turn toward the Republicans last November was a mistake, and began to explain why.

The problems that we confront as a developed nation in an era of new and rising powers, he said, extend well beyond deficits and debt. While those fiscal issues certainly pose a real threat to our future prosperity, so do the deficits in our educational system, our physical infrastructure, our scientific research and our broadband capacity. If we focus solely on the fiscal deficit — and insist on reducing it by mindless, ruinous budgetary policies — then America will be set firmly on the path of national decline.

Therefore, said Obama, we must find ways to finance the essential investments that will equip Americans to participate successfully in the global economy, from high-speed rail to renewable energy to decently compensated teachers. Much of his plea for modernization fell on deaf ears among the Republican congressional majority, of course, whose leading intellects don’t necessarily accept the scientific consensus on climate change and nurture grudging doubts about evolution.

The president cannot expect the Republicans to move his agenda forward during the next two years, but he can start to demonstrate why their own agenda is empty and stagnant.

In that task, he was amply assisted by the (two!) sourly partisan and negative rejoinders to his speech from the other side. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., the tea party diva, repeated the same stale talking points that always issue from her mouth when she isn’t inventing fables about our history. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the new House budget chairman, failed again to indicate how his party will restore fiscal balance — let alone how it means to address the central questions of education, science, technology and infrastructure.

With grace and openness, Obama invited the Republicans to engage those issues, as well as the more immediate debates over health care, taxes and the budget. He reminded them and the public that Democrats stand for fiscal equity. He urged the nation’s millionaires to give up their obscene tax breaks and set forth a deal to close loopholes and lower rates if every corporation pays its share of taxes. He explicitly rejected cutbacks that would fall most heavily on the most vulnerable and offered a spending freeze far less destructive than that proposed by the Republicans.

If the true state of the Union is more perilous than Obama dared to admit, he certainly began to describe the real challenges before us — and by implication, the obstacles that can only be removed at the next election.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.


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