President Obama opened and closed last night's State of the Union with a series of auspicious military metaphors. In opening, "These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America's Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together."
In closing: "When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind."
It's not martial law, but the metaphors matter.
And for President Obama, the military metaphor is good one. Americans are united behind their military in bi-partisan ways that transcend political divides, and border more on the religious and the sacred than the mundane. Further, unlike in the economy, the President has an enviable record in foreign affairs, and in military achievement.
A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 48 percent of Americans approved his handling of foreign policy, compared with 35 percent who did not. The same poll showed even stronger support for his handling of the terrorist threat. Osama bin Laden appeared early in the speech.
Withdrawal from Iraq, a surge and slow withdrawal from Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and more are all tests this President has seemingly passed, if not by his prudent foreign policy, then from a fortuitous chain of events more abroad than at home. "Good job tonight," the President congratulated Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on his way to the podium, hours after the Special Forces group that killed Osama Bin Laden attacked a Somali pirate hideout, freeing two aid workers held hostage for three months.
The military both reinforces the best aspects of Obama's record, and appeals to the common, sacrificial unity of the American republic.
But absent the military metaphor is the dignity of the meaning of that Union. Words like fairness and equality recurred . . . but the gridlock is in the definition. Whose fairness? And which equality? One kind of fairness asks the rich to pay their share for the vulnerable, while another cuts the intrusion of government from unbalancing the market.
Certain goods in the State of the Union were transparently obvious: "We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000," the President said. How markedly particular. Everything economic, from kitchen sinks to unfair Chinese trading of kitchen sinks, was on display. The State of the Union, in short, is a state of economic obsession. Even classrooms of students can be monetized and justified on that basis.
None of which would be new to Canadians watching our own federal Conservatives, or the English, or much of the European Union crisis unfolding. The means are ever martial, and the ends are ever material, and the existential meaning of it all has been lost somewhere in the stack of defeatist toil pundits call public debate. Will America be content with a call to arms to raise the lofty GDP ever higher, with new trickles of fairness for all? President Obama is right: America has done it before. But then, it also used to have something bigger to believe in.