“Which way am I heading?
President Obama is a brilliant man, but he delivered a banal State of the Union address last week. It was a speech shrouded in shrill anger, tedious sloganeering, tendentious posturing. It was a performance rooted in ritualistic tilts, nods, bobs, weaves. Our president sounded tired, and looked defeated. In a Victorian novel, it would be said that he was bilious.
His audience was worse. Democrats rising and clamoring with every invocation of 50-year-old clichés. Republicans refusing to rise, staring grimly at cameras or primly at one another. Everywhere, for nearly 90 minutes, we beheld every conceivable tepid symbol, emblem, talisman, and totem of old paradigm Capital consciousness. It looked as it is: devoid of higher truth, empty and inane, and consciously malignant.
Our nation and society confront enormous problems. Some are ancient, but many are entirely new. All are immensely complex, and all are imposing immense injury upon multitudes of individuals, our body politic, and the planet we share.
Our lawmakers, jurists, military officers, and chief executive sat, stood, sat again, in their mausoleum, clasped in soporific cadences, trapped in morose meaningless jingoisms, locked in scarcely concealed platitudes. The hundreds of persons preening in that marble chamber style and name themselves leaders. However, not one living soul in that audience, and certainly not our president who nominally addressed them, manifested any substantial awareness of the true State of the Union. Nor did one living soul appear authentically to care.
We expect little, maybe nothing, of Senators or Representatives. But we do count on much from our senior uniformed officers and our senior jurists, whom we want and need to believe are men and women of honor, keen intelligence, and genuinely patriotic selflessness. We surely expect and need much from President Obama. Not for four decades have the American people felt so much excited hope for the presidency, and for the president himself. Agree with him or disagree with him, President Obama has seemed to a large majority of American people and a massive majority of international citizens to be a genius of politics, an intellectual of major importance, and a spiritual presence of the greatest significance. To a great many people at home and abroad, President Obama has seemed to be a noble human being. It was for this reason that the American electorate elevated to power.
The broad perception of our president’s distinctness and distinction has not emerged by accident. President Obama campaigned magnificently for election. He deployed his extraordinary talents to this purpose, and he did so with unprecedented effectiveness. He presented himself splendidly as the being whom the world has come to believe he actually is: a man of the highest intellect and most decent, righteous spirit who acts from his lovely heart.
Where is President Obama’s mind these days? In what does he believe? What are his ideals? What does he seek? A kaleidoscope of least common denominators, parsed in secret through heinous compromises with ward bosses, venal interest groups, and their wee minions?
This potentially very great leader was elected to end now a tragic and terrible national tendency toward reductiveness and violence in our foreign policy. He was elected to end now mindless class conflict and parochial sectarian quarrelsomeness in our domestic affairs. He was elected to dialogue and discourse with us all on the most elevated plane of reasoned passion.
Yet, two disgraceful wars continue. The war in Iraq is utterly mindless, and always has been. The war in Afghanistan is neither sustainable nor winnable. The cost of these horrid, unnecessary, and unjustifiable battles in lives, welfare, and national treasure is disastrous and heartrending. And a new war in Yemen is undeclared, and is rapidly spawning.
Domestic political affairs remain paralyzed in provincial polarity. Angry unfelt prating passes for dialogue and discourse. Selfish careless extremism masquerades as thought. Implacable biases and loud orations impersonate as actions.
Our economic woes, awful as these are, are but epidermal. Our nation and many of our people are spiraling into ever more perilous states of confusion, emptiness, and anger.
Where is our president, who believed himself to be and who genuinely was the leader for our times? And what union was he describing last week? What state did he believe he was naming, and what conditions did he imagine he was healing? “It’s not my fault” is a locution that belongs to adolescents. Tossing imaginary sums of money aloft into the ether is a tactic that belongs to demagogues and miscreants. Reading a committee’s clichés and inanities from a visible teleprompter is the error of incompetents.
What has gone wrong?
Our president has become captured. He has become incarcerated by his deputies. He poignantly if subconsciously signaled his awareness of this predicament when, after his speech, as he passed slowly through a throng of acolytes, the network microphones picked up his sad question to the Senate and House ushers: “Which way am I heading?”
A great leader surrounds himself with advisors of exceptional ability and experience. He listens to them. He savors learned astuteness. But he does not yield his essence. He does not cede his spirit, core, soul, and true meaning. He remembers, always and deeply, that he and he alone was elected to leadership by the entire nation in its peopled wisdom.
A great leader seeks mentors. He convenes counselors, he hears them, and he esteems them. Then he takes himself away for a swim, a walk, basketball, Camp David, am entirely private congress with his sensate self. He thanks his head very much, adjourns it, and turns to his heart.
A great leader knows his heart to be his compass tried and true. He knows his heart’s voice, as no one else does. He listens, ultimately and finally, to this voice alone. He hears in its teachings his counselor supreme. He sees in its teachings his highest truth and his most correct pathways. He articulates the truths and pathways of his heart to his deputies, and to his fellow-citizens. And he, they, and we joyfully join minds and souls and follow – into the desert, to the moon, across impossibly yawning crevices and chasms, straight through the most daunting obstacles, clear around and beyond even the most onerous challenges.
President Barack Obama is a person of rare and wonderful brilliance. He was born to lead himself and our nation well beyond norms now ossified, far above worn destructive paradigms now prevailing. He has had only one year in presidency, and he visibly has learned much. He will find his way.
This may be the redeeming gift of his purely terrible first State of the Union address to the Congress and the American people. Our president’s eyes and his body language expressed palpable anger and marked impatience with himself. He knows what has gone wrong. He surely will discover how to relocate his heart, and how to heed it. This man is a very quick study, and he leads from his heart.
He had best hurry. The State of the Union is severely imperiled.