President Obama Set a Tone, Not an Agenda

His State of the Union speech tried to push his opposition into cooperating on the country's competitive challenges.

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President Barack Obama was under pressure to satisfy many different constituencies in his second State of the Union address last night. Some liberals wanted the president to support government-matching 401(k) contributions in order to promote saving; others wanted him to address gay-rights legislation; still others urged a ban on large gun clips, or deep cuts in the defense budget.

Instead the president chose to set a tone rather than an agenda. Other presidents have been able to unveil sweeping policy initiatives in the annual address. But President Obama is faced with an ideologically driven opposition that has made clear its intention to oppose him at every turn. At the same time, the president is also facing a historic shift in technological and global economic realities that is remaking the world as we have come to know it.

Even though some policy initiatives were proposed, President Obama had another objective. Faced with a Republican majority in the House; a Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose stated goal is repealing health care reform and defeating Obama in 2012; and Sen. James DeMint (R-S.C.), who sees the overturn of health care reform as "Obama's Waterloo," President Obama shrewdly took the higher ground: appealing to all sides to work together on behalf of America. The president declared, "Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater -- something more consequential than party or political preference."

The world in which we live is changing rapidly. Advances in technology have rewritten the rules of engagement within one generation. As the president put it, " … revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers and sell their products wherever there's an Internet connection."

In the face of this new reality, President Obama is engaged in battles with people like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who once told the New York Times that he did not know how to use the Internet. It is difficult to move forward while dragging your opposition into the 21st century.

The speech did have its flaws, mostly by omission. The president did not mention any targeted programs to assist the poor in America and the long-term or chronically unemployed. As unpopular as it may be, providing education and job training for the least of us will prove to be a benefit for all of us. He also did not take the opportunity to acknowledge the innocent civilians who died in the Russian airport bombing or to call for greater international cooperation to ensure the rights of the world's oppressed people.

But President Obama was correct to focus on the big challenges. "At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country or somewhere else," he said. "It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world."

In order for America to win the future, it must discard the baggage of the past. The paradigm has changed, and America must adapt. Conservatives must stop being the party of opposition and become the party of alternatives.

At the same time, the Democrats should not be afraid to lead. They must take control of the narrative and clearly articulate to the American people more than ideas about winning the future; they must articulate a plan and explain how the future will be won. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus." In the coming months, we will see if Obama's focus on tone pays off in a solid agenda that moves the nation forward.

Wilmer J. Leon III is the producer-host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk-radio program Inside the Issues With Leon, as well as a teaching associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Follow him at wilmerleon.com or on Twitter.

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