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The State of the Union: A Deficit of Trust

January 28, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

State of the Union
Photo: White House

One thread that the President wove through his State of the Union speech last night was the growing frustration of the American people with the inability of Washington to get anything done. Speaking of the millions of Americans who are struggling in the current economic climate, the President said,

For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough.  Some are frustrated; some are angry.  They don't understand … why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems.  They're tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness.  They know we can't afford it.  Not now. 

Later, speaking of the budget and the growing deficit, he noted,

… we have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now.  We face a deficit of trust -– deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. 

Still later, he addressed the hyper-partisanship that has been the trademark of Washington in recent years:

But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day.  We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -– a belief that if you lose, I win.  … [I]t's precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people.  Worse yet, it's sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.

Speaking of American values, "values that allowed us to forge a nation made up of immigrants from every corner of the globe," the President warned of growing cynicism and disappointment,

Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions -– our corporations, our media, and, yes, our government –- still reflect these same values.  … Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith.  The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates to silly arguments, big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.  No wonder there's so much cynicism out there.  No wonder there's so much disappointment.

The President used much of his speech to advocate for a change in course, for Republicans and Democrats to work together, and to tackle problems that the American people want solved.

To close that credibility gap we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue….

I know it's an election year.  …  But we still need to govern.

He directly addressed the crux of today's paralysis in Congress:

To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.  And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.  Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership.  We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.  So let's show the American people that we can do it together. 

Late in his speech, the President addressed his supporters directly:

I campaigned on the promise of change –- change we can believe in, the slogan went.  And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change –- or that I can deliver it.

But remember this –- I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone.  Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated.  And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy.  That's just how it is.

This is very true.  The President can't do it alone, and this has been part of the narrative of the Campaign to Reform Immigration FOR America all along.  Immigration reform—or solutions to any of the grave problems facing America today—must have the votes of 278 members of Congress—218 in the House and 60 in the Senate.  To get those members of Congress to join the president will take the sustained effort of the thousands of activists and representatives from the faith, business, labor, civil rights, immigrant's rights, law enforcement, agricultural, and other communities that have joined the Campaign.  If Members of Congress are going to head for the hills, we have to let them know that the hills are not a safe place for them right now.

But we also need the President's commitment.

The dysfunction in our politics that the President so eloquently addressed in his speech has a corrosive effect on the electorate.  The longer these trends continue and the more they spread, the more tempting it is for the average citizen to say "What's the use?"  Disgust with politics may be especially acute with the supporters of the President who, perhaps new to campaign politics, were drawn in by the promise of change, believing they had a leader who they could work with to bring about that change.

There are many of those people, and they all had ideas of the change they sought.  Not everything can be accomplished at once, but it is important that all of those constituencies still believe that this leader who promised change is still thinking about them.

In this, the President missed an opportunity to lift the spirits of those who voted for him because they believed he would be a leader in the battle to fix our broken immigration system.  The President did mention the need to do so, but the one sentence he devoted to it near the end of his 70 minute speech did not have enough specifics to lift up those who are hurting because our immigration system is broken.

It is not just what politicians are saying that leads to disenchantment with our politics and government, it is also what they are not saying.

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