Three issues rarely heard on last fall’s campaign trail made their way forcefully into the president’s State of the Union speech Tuesday evening: the poor, climate change and gun control. I was happy to see them; we have ducked an open discussion of them for too long. Obama was most oblique about the poor. But his reference to “inescapable pockets of poverty” was a rare acknowledgement in a country where everything is meant to be escapable, where a new life lies just beyond the frontier. I hope the president’s “ladders of opportunity” will enable us to rebuild American communities that are as ravaged as any in the developing world, rather than be simply the means to get out of them.
The president’s most encouraging message was his full engagement with climate change, which is becoming a signature issue for him. He may well be our most environmental president, although with Richard Nixon often offered as the reigning champion, the competition is pretty thin. But the president must show us how we can simultaneously have all the growth we seem to need and protect the increasingly ravaged earth on which our lives depend.
It was not a passionate speech until the end: first, on guns, when Obama adopted the “call-and-response” cadence of a Baptist preacher, “They deserve a vote;” and then the finale: “We are citizens . . . this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations . . . our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.” Amen.