A rare State of the Union call to action reached Americans stereophonically Tuesday night, resonating through our parlor speakers and personal earbuds from the left and the right.
It had nothing to do with the usual forgettable laundry lists of policies and programs. It was a searing warning call imploring us to move with urgency and unity to defeat a plague that is already crippling our democracy.
It came at us first from the left, then from the right — but with identical fervent pitches and urgent tones that made it seem the two messages could have been delivered in unison.
The first pitch, from the left, was sounded by Barry. The second, from the right, came from Nikki. Or, to use the full names given them at birth: Barack Hussein Obama, born in Honolulu, Hawaii; and Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa, born in Bamberg, S.C.
Most Read Opinion Stories
President Obama and South Carolina Gov. Haley grew up to become political opposites. He was elected to the U.S. Senate and twice to the presidency as a hero of Democratic liberals. She was elected with the support of very conservative tea-party Republicans. Last year, she famously led her state through a hateful mass killings at a black church and led her state’s removal of the Confederate flag that flew at its statehouse.
Tuesday, Obama delivered his final State of the Union address, and Haley gave the official Republican Party response to it. While remaining true to their ideological policy convictions, they also sounded nearly identical appeals for America to return decency and civility to its politics and governance.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama declared in a poignantly self-reflective moment of his address. “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
Indeed, Obama’s presidency has coincided with a sad descent into depths of hate-based attack politics and governmental stalemate. Republicans and Democrats blame each other for the negativity — and in a sense, both are right.
Early in the Obama presidency, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky famously bragged to a room full of think-tank conservatives that his sole goal was to assure Obama wouldn’t be re-elected. Meanwhile, Obama pursued his comprehensive health reform with a no-compromising determination, knowing Democrats then controlled Congress. His plan became law without Republican support; but years of governance by gridlock followed. Meanwhile, Republicans pushed attack-politics into every facet of government, even international policy arenas that used to be handled under the bipartisan notion that politics stops at the water’s edge.
While it was not surprising to hear Obama decry Washington’s descent into partisan rancor, it surprised many, including some overzealous Republicans, to hear Haley courageously maintain that both parties deserve blame for the political paralysis. “We as Republicans need to … recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken. And then we need to fix it.”
Last year, Donald Trump led Republican presidential hopefuls down to a new bottom-feeding attack politics, calling Mexican immigrants in the country illegally rapists and proposing a ban of unspecified duration on immigration of all Muslims.
So it was no surprise to hear Obama say: “When politicians insult Muslims … it betrays who we are as a country.” But Haley earned a world of praise when she called for fixing our broken immigration system — and then added that America should be “welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion, just like we have for centuries.”
On Wednesday, Haley told CNN that she was indeed talking about Trump, but also about others in both parties. She explained: “We see Republicans who are not always being responsible with their words in terms of extending our tent, making sure that people who abide by our laws and abide by our traditions feels accepted in this country.”
Obama and Haley delivered messages of ideological differentiation on matters of policy. But their identical calls for returns to decency, civility and governance forged by patriotic compromise are hopes we must not only hear but heed.
Those two patriotic Americans were merely urging us to have the courage of the convictions of our Founding Fathers. Our founders would surely be shocked to see today what became of the dream they thought would long ago be our enduring reality.