Americans, shaken by the Tucson tragedy, say they yearn for civility in government. Tuesday night, for one brief shining hour, they got it. In the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats and Republicans sat together as bipartisan couples, interspersed. They were not divided by party, but united as Americans. As a body, they respectfully applauded a gracious speech by their president.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama congratulated the newly elected speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, not once but twice. As is his wont, the president outlined an ambitious agenda, enough to fill two full presidential terms, let alone one year. But in the process, he prominently embraced several Republican proposals and philosophies while stoutly, but respectfully, defending and advocating his own programs.
The whole affair the speech and the understated congressional reaction was a refreshing change from the childish wrangling and shouted insults that have come to cheapen our political discussions.
Nevertheless, there was a grave subtext, beside the Gabrielle Giffords assassination attempt, to this largely ceremonial occasion. With 9 percent of Americans out of work and the standard of living falling, the American Dream is in jeopardy, and the president set about to tell Americans how to restore that dream. Part of his message was to reassure the nation that the dream endures. Another was to lay out a prescription for how to move the nation and its dreams forward.
The president did a passable job of both, though this speech will not be remembered for either soaring oratory or specific proposals. It was, rather, more of a policy sketch, the sort of thing that businesses and other organizations call a strategic vision.
In brief, the president said that the United States must "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build" the rest of the world. Besides investing in those things, the president said, the federal government must "take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government."
While he's about that, the president wants to simplify the tax code, reform immigration, strengthen Social Security, review government regulation, freeze non-defense discretionary spending and reorganize the executive branch. That is the political equivalent of the trials of Hercules, but Obama's style always has been to aim high.
In the Republican response, Rep. Paul Ryan focused on the "crushing burden of debt" that "will soon eclipse our entire economy." The crux of debate on the future is how to reconcile the spending that Obama outlined with the government's structural deficits.
That wasn't settled Tuesday night. But at least the tone of the debate was worthy of a great nation.