How to follow an hollow speech?

The State of the Union address was promoted as a call for reconciliation and bipartisanship, towards the unity the country sorely needs. Could it be that, unlikely as the messenger was, we would be witnessing the dawn of a new era in American politics?

After parsing the speech through multiple lenses, from the hopeful to the naïve, the informed and the skeptic, I still want to believe that we are at the dawn of something new and positive. Just not because of anything the president said or proposed.

The president’s guests were arguably well chosen, their stories often compelling. They were a highlight of the night. In another highlight, Democratic congresswomen dressed in white were uplifting in their presence, numbers, and spontaneous and playful outbursts. Both these highlights offered opportunities that a more inspired leader might have used to help bring Americans closer together.

But this president’s call for unity fell tragically flat. Some of the words were even the right ones, but they were delivered with such a lack of sincerity and credibility, and in such poor context and sequence, that they came across as hollow and irrelevant. Besides other factors, any words towards unity were fully erased by a not-so-veiled threat to held legislation hostage, if oversight of the president via congressional investigations would not stop.

What a missed opportunity! A president like ours, who seems to have no engrained political convictions, is in theory distinctively well positioned to bring parties together. But he needs to have the drive, knowledge, grace and skill that the task requires. None of which applies.

Also tragic was the absence of topics on which the president owes America an explanation, if not an outright course correction. The partial government shutdown, with its impact on tens of thousands of federal employees and their families. Climate change, a key issue of our times. Increased investment in science and technology, an essential engine for our economy and wellbeing. And more.

Where thus do I find reasons to remain optimistic? Perhaps naively, in my trust in America and the majority of our citizens. In how, in 2018, we re-instated checks and balances for an unfit president. In the irreverence of newly elected US representatives, many of them women. In a savvy, fearless speaker of the House. In the heavy silence that followed the president’s not-so-veiled threat of taking legislation hostage, so much more telling when put in context of the otherwise well-choreographed Republican applause.

I don’t need to be a Democrat (I am not), and I don’t need to agree with either Nancy Pelosi or with the more irreverent new voices in Congress (whether I do depends on the issue), to recognize that the opportunity for real change is here for the taking.

Will Democrats capitalize on their mix of irreverence and experience to demonstrate real leadership, putting country above internal squabbles and partisan disputes? Will Republicans react by waking up from the strange slumber that diminishes them through an unprincipled subservience to this president? Will moderates from the two parties find enough common ground to stand together for true American values? Or will independents finally break the two-party control of our country?

Whatever emerges, I know this: It is ultimately up to us, citizens, to tell our current and prospective representatives what we want for our country, through our opinions, actions and votes. Respectfully, but clearly and consistently.

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