On Tuesday, February 12, 2013 Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address. The speech was policy-heavy, and Obama clearly hopes it will set the agenda for the next legislative session. The New York Times offers a good summation of his policy points in a clear, easy to read format. I highly suggest spending five minutes to explore the run down of Obama’s domestic policy proposals (including gun control legislation, increasing minimum wage, path to citizenship and immigration reform, clean energy research, climate change legislation and education funding).
I found the speech particularly interesting. All of Obama’s proposals are linked on a fundamental level, and it has little to do with the standard Democratic platform (although the proposals do mirror many of the DNC’s policy desires). Instead, it has to do with Obama’s conception of the American Dream rooted in opportunity and the obligations of citizenship.
Opportunity and Citizenship
Speaking about his plan to invest specifically in areas that have experienced the worst of the economic repression, Obama highlights the importance of opportunity:
Tonight, let’s also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job. America is not a place where the chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.
Obama transitions from using the term “place” as geographic location (specific factory towns) to a metaphorical description of America. In doing so, Obama recognizes that in certain communities the dream of upwards mobility simply does not exist, and that the existence of these places is antithetical to the American Dream. Nowhere in America should upward mobility be out of reach for those who are willing to work for it. The opportunity to improve your life must exist.
This focus on opportunity brings together many of the themes Obama presents: direct investment in American infrastructure, jobs legislation, an increase in minimum wage (“no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty”), and even immigration legislation. If America is to remain a beacon of freedom and opportunity, it must have social and economic structures that allow for class mobility.
“Opportunity,” however, is often employed as a code-word for promoting free market principles through minimal taxation and pro-business legislation. This capitalist understanding of the American Dream is tempered by Obama’s second focus, obligation.
But as Americans, we all share the same proud title — we are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter of our American story.
For Obama, the responsibility individuals have to each other reduces the impact of free-market capitalism. Citizenship is further defined not by nationality or legal status, but by partaking in the shared American endeavor. This necessitates not just inhabiting a communal space but also recognizing a social responsibility towards fellow citizens. It is from this that Obama’s focus on gun control, climate change, and education originate.
In this way, opportunity and obligation resist each other. Obligation requires free markets to be truly fair, taxes to support education and development, and social programs to help those less fortunate. On the other hand, obligation without opportunity is rudderless. The promise of opportunity directs the energy of citizenship towards fruitful ends. Obama’s ideology is fascinating for the tensions it represents.
Opportunity, tempered with obligation, forms the foundation of Obama’s State of the Union. I find these that two particular themes reoccur throughout many of Obama’s works – both political speeches and his autobiographies. Understanding the premises underlying Obama’s ideology allows students of politics to make better sense of his legislative proposals.
 Obama’s February 24th, 2009 Speech before a Joint Session of Congress is not technically considered a State of the Union address. Many consider it an annual address (occurring right after his inauguration), but still include it along side other SOTU’s. The difference is relatively unimportant. Check out The American Presidency Project here for more info.
 Current research suggests that the more attention the President gives to specific policy areas (foreign policy, economic issues and civil rights) the more the public level of concern over these issues grows. Just by focusing on specific issues, Presidents can increase public awareness and pressure Congress to act towards certain goals. See Cohen, Jeffrey E. 1995. “Presidential Rhetoric and the Public Agenda” American Journal of Political Science 39 (1). For those currently in Pols 1602, this is a perfect example of going public, the President’s ability to exert influence through rhetoric.
 Recent research suggests that upward mobility is exceptionally hard to achieve in America. Factories and towns such as the ones Obama is referring to may be far more common than we like to believe. Perhaps more important to note, is that opportunity for upward mobility is discriminatory along race (and gender) lines.
 This specific reference, that of America as a “beacon,” has a long enough history to warrant its own blog post. I’ll give a short description here, partially because its relevant and partially because tracing rhetorical and intellectual legacies is something I find fascinating. A reading of Dreams Of My Father and Audacity of Hope (Obama’s two published literary works) reveals that he employs “beacon” imagery derived specifically from Ronald Reagan. Reagan often referred to a similar vision of America as a “shining city upon a hill.” The shining city is a beacon for “all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.” For Reagan, the beacon represents the opportunity of individual liberty. The “Shining city,” however, does not belong to Reagan. Instead, it was a carefully constructed image of President Kennedy as King Arthur, presiding over a perfect Camelot. Jackie Kennedy, who insisted on controlling her husband’s image after his death, used the phrase to ensure “that people will remember all the best things about him.” First appearing in a 1963 Life Magazine article titled “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue,” it idealized Kennedy as King Arthur, taken from the throne too soon: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” The line is credited with “having played a major role in establishing and fixing this image of the Kennedy Administration and period in the popular mind” (JFK Presidential Library and Museum). To use the term is to invoke a long history which locates America as the “promised land” for all those seeking freedom and opportunity. Should we desire, the term is easily traced back to its American origins several hundred years earlier. Delivered as a sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 upon the ship Arabella, “A Model of Christian Charity” implores the Puritans coming to America to consider “that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill [sic].” The phrase is adapted from the New Testament, Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” What is most remarkable is that the definition and use of such imagery has not changed significantly over the past 400 years. Indeed, the references from the New Testament do the same ideological work as Kennedy’s Camelot, Reagan’s “beacon” and Obama’s “light.”
Finally, the extended Footnote 4 is a coincidence, but happily references the most famous footnote of them all. Quotes in this footnote come from:
“The Family in Mourning,” Time, December 6th, 1963. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,898082,00.html. Accessed April 2009.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, “Theodore H. White (#307)”. Available:http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Archives+and+Manuscripts/fa_white_theodore.htm. Accessed April 2009.
Giles Gunn, Early American Writing (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 112.
Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation” in Ronald Reagan, Speaking My Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 412.