Imagining the State of the Union: Part I of II

January 31, 2012
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Following President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address, we thought it a fitting occasion to invite a dialogue from two leading scholars of civic rhetoric and the democratic tradition. Today, Sandra M. Gustafson, author of Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic, examines the metaphor of war in Congressional politics and evaluates President Obama’s use of military imagery, in light of his initial post-partisan appeal. Tomorrow, she’ll be joined by James Kloppenberg, author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, who accounts for our own projections onto the President and explores Obama’s use of moderate policies and progressive language. We’re delighted to host both of them on the blog, and hope you’re as intrigued by their analyses as we are.

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“Fighting for Cooperation” by Sandra M. Gustafson
President Barack Obama opened his fourth State of the Union address with a paean to the American armed forces. In a tribute designed to showcase important achievements of his first term, he celebrated the end of the Iraq War, which Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared over on December 15, 2011; the assassination of Osama bin Laden earlier that year; and the diminished power of the Taliban and draw down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Overlooking some notable military failures—the Abu Ghraib scandal, the “kill team” in Afghanistan, the hazing related death of Pvt. Danny Chen, statistics indicating widespread sexual assault—the president instead celebrated the “courage, selflessness and teamwork” that have made the U.S. armed forces successful: “They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” Building on an image of an American military characterized by fairness and discipline, he contrasted them with less successful institutions that have “let us down.” He did not need to say that for many people the central example of a failed institution was Congress itself, which in the days leading up to his speech had an approval rating of 13 percent.
That the most recent sitting U.S. president to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize should look to the military as a model for Congress bears reflection. The legislative branch is in its design and function very different from the hierarchical military system. It is an independent branch of government, not subordinate to the commander in chief. By calling on Congress to be more like the military, Obama was not suggesting a breach of separation of powers. He was speaking to one of the central issues that has bedeviled his presidency: the increasingly rigid refusal of Congressional Republicans to work with him and the Democrats to solve pressing national problems.
Candidate Obama campaigned on a platform of post-partisanship. His early years as a mixed-race child raised by white grandparents and his work as a community organizer prepared him for his mediating role as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, which launched his political career. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama characterized the United States as a “deliberative democracy” that works through free and open discussion. He promised to move past rigid polarities and take good ideas where he found them, a stance based in pragmatist philosophy as James Kloppenberg has shown in Reading Obama. This promise was tacitly premised on the willingness of Republicans to work with him. Instead, fueled by Tea Party money and energy, they embraced an oppositional role. War, not dialogue, has been the guiding metaphor in Congressional politics for much of the last three years.
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This turn of events cannot have been wholly unanticipated. The readiness with which the president’s most truculent opponents label his policies “socialism” draws on a long tradition of associating African Americans with leftist ideologies—a tradition based in the reality that in the four decades between the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist revelations, many African American intellectuals turned to those ideologies for an antidote to the pervasive racism of a segregated United States that prided itself on its democracy while inscribing inequality in law. Ralph Waldo Ellison was one such intellectual. In his great novel Invisible Man, which celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this March, he portrayed a young black man’s attraction to and ultimate disillusionment with powerful ideologies. During his campaign Obama repeatedly observed that he was a human Rorschach test, meaning that people saw in him what they wanted to see—a not-so-subtle allusion to Ellison’s unnamed hero.
Today war has become a standard way of modeling difference. In her 1998 book The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen analyzed “a pervasive warlike atmosphere” infecting public dialogue. Noting that a conflict-based approach to difference has a long history, she nevertheless documented its rise to new heights in recent decades. Conflict pervades the media, the law, technology (think computer games), and education. I work at the home of the “Fighting Irish,” where a leader of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies was featured in a promotional video series “What Would You Fight For?” The installment was called “Fighting for Peace.”
Writing about the fate of the president’s post-partisan agenda in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza cited research on the extremely limited impact that presidential rhetoric has historically had. Obama has called for compromise and consensus-building on many occasions over the last three years, including during the health care reform discussions and during his negotiations with John Boehner over the debt ceiling. Those appeals have contributed to a number of concrete legislative results, but they have probably also contributed to the heightened oppositionalism of the Tea Party Republicans. While it was this atmosphere that Obama promised to change, the extent of the problem requires long-term, systemic efforts, not quick fixes.
A number of initiatives—some originating with the administration, some not—offer a vision of a longer-term transformation. Last June NEH chairman and former Republican congressman Jim Leach completed a nineteen-month “Civility Tour” of all fifty states to promote better public dialogue. This month the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, on commission from the Department of Education, released “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future.” The report calls on institutions of higher education to promote “capacities to engage diverse perspectives and people” and build more robust institutions of democratic civic engagement. Meanwhile the group No Labels has encouraged people to eschew party labels and promoted a set of Congressional reforms designed to fix the processes that have contributed to polarization and paralysis.
At the conclusion of his State of the Union address, President Obama returned to his opening military imagery, this time in connection with the flag given him by the SEAL Team that killed Bin Laden. The names of the team are written on the flag, and the president noted that “some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter.” What matters, he went on to say, is that they were able to work together, to have each other’s backs, and he called on Congress and the nation to do the same. It is a reflection of our moment—sad, perhaps, but real—that American culture has become so saturated with conflict that our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president turns to the military institutions designed to engage in conflict as our best examples of teamwork and cooperation.
Sandra M. Gustafson teaches at the University of Notre Dame, where she is a member of the English department and a faculty fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Her book Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011.

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Stay tuned for tomorrow’s response from James Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University, and the author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton University Press, Second Edition, 2012).

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