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Sandra M. Gustafson on the State of the Union (2015)

President Obama Delivers State Of The Union Address

As with the past few years, we are fortunate enough to have scholar Sandra M. Gustafson contribute a post following Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address, positing the stakes for Obama’s rhetorical position in light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City (while pointing toward their more deeply embedded and disturbing legacies, respectively). Read Gustafson’s 2015 post in full after the jump below.


Lives that Matter: Reflections on the 2015 State of the Union Address

by Sandra M. Gustafson

 In his sixth State of the Union address, President Barack Obama summarized the major achievements of his administration to date–bringing the American economy back from the Great Recession, passing and implementing the Affordable Care Act, advancing civil rights, and winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while shifting the emphasis of US foreign policy toward diplomacy and multilateralism – and presented a framework for new initiatives that he called “middle class economics,” including affordable child care, a higher minimum wage, and free community college. Commentators compared the president’s emphasis on the successes of his six years in office to an athlete taking a victory lap. Some considered that tone odd in light of Republican midterm victories, while others speculated about his aspirations to shape the 2016 presidential election.  More and more, the president’s rhetoric and public actions inform an effort to shape his legacy, both in terms of the direction of his party and with regard to his historical reputation. The 2015 State of the Union address was a prime example of the narrative emerging from the White House.

The announcement earlier on the day of the address that the president will visit Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the movement to pass the Voting Rights Act was just one of many examples of how he has presented that legacy over the years: as an extension of the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community organizing, nonviolent protest, and political engagement are the central components of the route to social change that the president offered in The Audacity of Hope, his 2006 campaign autobiography. The need to nurture a commitment to progressive change anchored in an expanded electorate and an improved political system has been a regular theme of his time in office.

In the extended peroration that concluded this State of the Union address, the president alluded to his discussion of deliberative democracy in The Audacity of Hope. He called for “a better politics,” which he described as one where “we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears,” “where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts,” and “where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up with a sense of purpose and possibility.” He also returned to his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, quoting a now famous passage, “there wasn’t a liberal America or a conservative America; a black America or a white America—but a United States of America.”

The president’s biracial background and his preference for “both/and” ways of framing conflicts has put him at odds with critics such as Cornell West and Tavis Smiley, who have faulted him for not paying sufficient attention to the specific problems of black America. The approach that Obama took in his address to the police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City did not satisfy activists in the Black Lives Matter coalition, which issued a rebuttal to his address in the form of a State of the Black Union message. To the president’s claim that “The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” the activists responded emphatically, offering a direct rebuttal in the subtitle of their manifesto: “The Shadow of Crisis has NOT Passed.” Rejecting his assertions of economic growth and social progress, they assembled a list of counterclaims.

The president came closest to engaging the concerns of the activists when he addressed the issue of violence and policing. “We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York,” he noted, juxtaposing micronarratives of “a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed” and “the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift.” By focusing on the concerns of a father and a wife, rather than the young man and the police officer at risk, he expanded the possibilities for identification in a manner that echoes his emphasis on family. The “State of the Black Union” extends the notion of difference in an alternative direction and responds with a macronarrative couched in terms of structural violence: “Our schools are designed to funnel our children into prisons. Our police departments have declared war against our community. Black people are exploited, caged, and killed to profit both the state and big business. This is a true State of Emergency. There is no place for apathy in this crisis. The US government has consistently violated the inalienable rights our humanity affords.”

To the president’s language of the nation as a family, and to his statement that “I want our actions to tell every child in every neighborhood, your life matters, and we are committed to improving your life chances[,] as committed as we are to working on behalf of our own kids,” the manifesto responds by rejecting his image of national solidarity and his generalization of the “black lives matter” slogan. Instead it offers a ringing indictment: “This corrupt democracy was built on Indigenous genocide and chattel slavery. And continues to thrive on the brutal exploitation of people of color. We recognize that not even a Black President will pronounce our truths. We must continue the task of making America uncomfortable about institutional racism. Together, we will re-imagine what is possible and build a system that is designed for Blackness to thrive.”  After presenting a list of demands and declaring 2015 “the year of resistance,” the manifesto concludes with a nod to Obama’s 2008 speech on race, “A More Perfect Union”: “We the People, committed to the declaration that Black lives matter, will fight to end the structural oppression that prevents so many from realizing their dreams. We cannot, and will not stop until America recognizes the value of Black life.”

This call-and-response between the first African American president and a coalition of activists has two registers.  One register involves the relationship between part and whole (e pluribus unum). President Obama responds to demands that he devote more attention to the challenges facing Black America by emphasizing that he is the president of the entire nation. What is at stake, he suggests, is the ability of an African American to represent a heterogeneous society.

The other register of the exchange exemplifies a persistent tension over the place of radicalism in relation to the institutions of democracy in the United States.  The Black Lives Matter manifesto draws on critiques of American democracy in Black Nationalist, Black radical, and postcolonial thought. As I discuss in Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic, these critiques have roots reaching back before the Civil War, to abolitionist leaders such as David Walker and Maria Stewart, and even earlier to the Revolutionary War veteran and minister Lemuel Haynes. The recently released film Selma, which portrays the activism leading to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, highlights the tactics of Dr. King and his associates as they pressure President Johnson to take up the matter of voting. The film characterizes the radical politics of Malcolm X and the threat of violence as a means to enhance the appeal of King’s nonviolent approach, an argument that Malcolm himself made. It then includes a brief scene in which Malcolm meets with Coretta Scott King in a tentative rapprochement that occurred shortly before his assassination. This tripartite structure of the elected official, the moderate or nonviolent activist, and the radical activist willing to embrace violence has become a familiar paradigm of progressive social change.

Aspects of this paradigm inform Darryl Pinckney’s “In Ferguson.” Reporting on the violence that followed the grand jury’s failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s killing, Pickney quotes the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, one of the leaders of the Don’t Shoot coalition, on the limits of electoral politics. Voting is “an insider strategy,” Sekou says. “If it’s only the ballot box, then we’re finished.” Pickney also cites Hazel Erby, the only black member of the seven-member county council of Ferguson, who explained the overwhelmingly white police force as a result of low voter turnout. Pinckney summarizes: “The city manager of Ferguson and its city council appoint the chief of police, and therefore voting is critical, but the complicated structure of municipal government is one reason many people have been uninterested in local politics.” This type of local narrative has played a very minor role in the coverage.  It occupies a register between President Obama’s micronarratives focused on individuals and families, on the one hand, and the structural violence macronarrative of the Black Lives Matter manifesto on the other. This middle register is where specific local situations are addressed and grassroots change happens. It can also provide insight into broad structural problems that might otherwise be invisible.

The value of this middle register of the local narrative emerges in the light that Rachel Aviv shines on police violence in an exposé of the Albuquerque Police Department. In “Your Son is Deceased,” Aviv focuses on the ordeal of the middle class Torres family when Christopher Torres, a young man suffering from schizophrenia, is shot and killed by police in the backyard of the family home. Christopher’s parents, a lawyer and the director of human resources for the county, are refused information and kept from the scene of their son’s killing for hours. They learn what happened to Christopher only through news reports the following day. The parallels between the Torres and Brown cases are striking, as are the differences. Though the confrontation with the police that led to Torres’s death happened just outside his home, and though his parents knew and worked with city officials including the mayor, his death and the official response to it share haunting similarities with that of Brown. Aviv does not ignore the issue of race and ethnicity, mentioning the sometimes sharp conflicts in this borderlands region between Latino/as, Native Americans, and whites.  But in presenting her narrative, she highlights the local factors that foster the corruption that she finds to be endemic in the Albuquerque Police Department; she also foregrounds mental illness as a decisive element in a number of police killings–one that crosses racial and economic boundaries.

There is a scene in Selma, in which Dr. King invites his colleagues to explore the dimensions of the voter suppression problem. They begin listing the contributing factors—the literacy tests, the poll tax—and then one of the organizers mentions laws requiring that a sponsor who is a voter must vouch for someone who wishes to register. The sponsor must know the would-be voter and be able to testify to her or his character. In rural areas of the South, there might not be a registered black voter for a hundred miles, and so many potential voters could not find an acquaintance to sponsor them.  The organizers agree this should be their first target, since without a sponsor, a potential voter cannot even reach the downstream hurdles of the literacy test and the poll tax. This practice of requiring a sponsor was specifically forbidden in the Voting Rights Act. At present, there are attempts to revive a version of the voucher test.


Selma as a whole, and this scene in particular, exemplifies many of the central features of democratic self-governance that Danielle Allen describes in Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Allen, a classicist and political theorist at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, develops what she calls a “slow reading” of the Declaration of Independence in order to draw out the meaning of equality, which she relates to political processes focused on democratic deliberation and writing. From the language of the Declaration, Allen draws five interconnected facets of the ideal of equality.  Equality, she explains, involves freedom from domination, for both states and individuals. It also involves “recognizing and enabling the general human capacity for political judgment” coupled with “access to the tool of government.”  She finds equality to be produced through the Aristotelian “potluck method,” whereby individuals contribute their special forms of knowledge to foster social good, and through reciprocity or mutual responsiveness, which contributes to equality of agency. And she defines equality as “co-creation, where many people participate equally in creating a world together.”[i]

Selma illustrates all of these features of equality at work in the Civil Rights Movement, and the discussion of how to prioritize different aspects of voter suppression is a compelling dramatization of the “potluck method.” Following Allen, what is called for now is the sharing of special knowledge among individuals and communities affected by violent policing, including representatives of the police.  The December killings of New York City police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos further heightened the polarization between police and protestors. President Obama offered one strategy for defusing that polarization in his State of the Union address when he presented scenarios designed to evoke reciprocity and mutual responsiveness.  Christopher Torres’s killing introduces an additional set of issues about the treatment of people with mental illness that complicates the image of a white supremacist state dominating black bodies—as does the fact that neither Liu nor Ramos was white.

What is needed now is a forum to produce and publicize a middle register of knowledge that addresses both local circumstances, such as the overly complicated government structure in Ferguson or the corruption in the Albuquerque Police Department, and more systemic problems such as the legacy of racism, a weak system of mental health care, and ready access to guns. Such a forum would exemplify the potluck method and embody the ideals of deliberative democracy as President Obama described them in The Audacity of Hope. Noting the diffuse operations of power in the government of the United States, he emphasized the importance of building a deliberative democracy where, “all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.” The present focus on police violence offers an opportunity to engage in such a democratic deliberation. The issues are emotional, and the stakes are high. But without the social sharing that Aristotle compared to a potluck meal, we will all remain hungry for solutions.

[i] In “Equality as Singularity:  Rethinking Literature and Democracy,” I relate Allen’s treatment of equality to the approach developed by French theorist Pierre Rosanvallon and consider both in relation to literature. The essay appears in a forthcoming special issue of New Literary History devoted to political theory.


Sandra M. Gustafson is professor of English and American studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a book on conflict and democracy in classic American fiction with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

To read more about Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic, click here.