I knew the state of the American people was all right even before President Obama walked into the well of the House of Representatives to give what turned out to be an at time hectoring, at other times gloomy, State of the Union speech. You see, I was very fortunate to get a seat at the speech tonight. A rather good seat. And Providence struck again when John sat next to me a good 45 minutes before the event.
John is a veteran who made it to the U.S. Capitol from Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland. It was also his first time at such an occasion, and we chatted about our good fortune at this once in a life-time opportunity. I had noticed John amble in, his dignity intact but his leg not functioning well just yet (hopefully just yet). I had paid no attention at first, as I continued picking out worthies out of the crowd (“Hey, there’s Joe Biden!”) until he told me where he was living these days. Then I noticed the Purple Heart. “Which war?” I asked. “Afghanistan,” he answered simply.
He told me about how it happened, how sudden it had been, and how he’d never forget that day in Kandahar back in July. He told me the past six months had been a blur as the doctors continued working on him. I thanked him for his sacrifice, and for keeping our country free, and told him my children prayed for the soldiers and the whole country did. “Heck, no sacrifice,” he said. “I’d give a part of my leg again. I’d do it, no problem, for this,” he said, spreading his arms wide at the Congressmen below. “Democracy is worth keeping safe and the country is worth keeping safe. We know we’re fighting for democracy. We didn’t have to do this. We enlisted because we believe in our country.”
Can we win in Afghanistan, I asked. He didn’t pause a second. “Yeah, if we have the resolve of the country behind us. We need the country,” he said.
He was the real McCoy, I reckoned, and given our surroundings I had to ask him if he ever thought of running for office. He chuckled. “Nah. I’m too rough around the edges for this town. I speak the truth and too plainly.”
I was getting misty-eyed at that point and began telling John that no, Washington needed more people like that, when the sergeant-at-arms pronounced the words that had delighted me for decades of watching these speeches on TV, “Madame Speaker, the President of the United States.”
The speech for the next hour fell flat, I thought. The President was scolding for much of the night, not an uplifter. He chided Republicans, or Washington, for all his ills. “No wonder there’s so much cynicism out there,” he carped at one point. “No wonder there’s so much disappointment.”
In fact, there was so much hand wringing that I wondered at one point if I wasn’t indeed witnessing a truly historical moment—Obama’s Malaise Speech. I think that epiphany came when he talked about the deficit. Not the budget deficit, “but the deficit of trust.” He complained, in fact, that “deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.”
But the President did not blame his actions for any of this. No. In fact, the best parts were when he showed incredible moxy, as when he railed against earmarks after signing a stimulus bill that included about a gazillion of these pet projects. Or, when the same man who last week hired his campaign guru David Plouffe to help him fix his political problems, nagged his opposition that not every day is “election day… we cannot wage a perpetual campaign!”
At the end, though, what struck me the most was how little sway the President of the United States held. Republicans laughed at him and he could only glare, or complain futilely about their mocking. “That’s how Washington works,” he said at one point, showing frustration. When he threatened, “I want to see a jobs bill on my desk without delay,” he sounded more like a long-forgotten college professor demanding that a homework assignment be turned in on time.
He rightly took a half hour before he started talking about health care, picking just about the time when the highest number of congressmen were looking at their blackberries, and he plead with those in front of him to “take a second look” at the bill the American people had already rejected.
After it was over, John and I chatted some more. I asked him what he thought of the speech. “I thought it was great,” he said. “I liked seeing how the two sides reacted differently to the same parts of the speech. I think it’s that split that makes democracy and our country work.”
Which was why after such a gloomy speech I left the chamber with renewed hope in our country.
(Heritage Vice President of Communications Mike Gonzalez was in the chamber for tonight’s speech. For more on the State of the Union, visit Heritage on Facebook and Twitter and read reaction from Heritage analysts and experts here. You can follow Mike on Twitter @Gundisalvus)