It’s rare to hear a politician admit failure; it’s even rarer to hear one say that he failed not merely in a small error-of-judgment kind of way but that he failed in a big way, over a period of many years, because of a fundamental inadequacy. President Obama did that Tuesday night, though, introducing a long section about civil discourse at the end of his final State of the Union speech by saying plainly that he has not done one of the things he had hoped to do as president—that he has failed to make the country’s political atmosphere less polarized/dysfunctional/hysterical.
Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.
Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
Obama’s message was not entirely pessimistic; his basic argument, which he’s sort of made before, was that American people as a whole are generally good hard-workin’ folks who are ill-served by the cynicism of certain selfish politicians and by certain structural elements of our political system. He did, however, challenge everyone listening to do better on an individual basis to make the country less of a politically miserable place: “Our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen,” the president said. “To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.”