WASHINGTON -- One had a feeling during President Obama's State of the Union address that the Republicans, naturally a major part of his audience in the Congress, were slogging along in the snow and ice of past winters, hanging onto the past, reluctant to embrace future change.
At the same time, as President Obama's speech spun along, it seemed less a grocery list of items purchased and checked off than a series of dream sequences through which he stopped every once in a while and stated confidently: "This CAN happen; in fact, I insist, this MUST happen."
Despite deliberate rearranging of the seating in the Congress, with the two parties often sitting coolly with one another, the Republicans still didn't rise to applaud the president. No matter how he phrased his commitment to free markets, no matter how he tried to explain that Obamacare was not government health care but was structured to help private insurance companies serve all, no matter how many proofs he offered that government spending was down -- the Republicans reverted to their old claims about him.
He was building up government to unimaginable heights; he was creating a world that hated us; he was diminishing the power of the military; he cared only about spending other people's money, taxing the rich till they are forced to send their millions or billions overseas; and dreaming up changes in education that we can neither afford nor provide for!
But I heard something else, and I'll bet a lot of other Americans did, too. I heard a cogent series of visionary ideas for America's future laid down respectfully before us.
When Barack Obama came in as president three years ago, he promised to end the Iraqi and Afghan wars and to end the American imperialism embraced so disastrously by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Americans have grumbled that he did not immediately "bring our boys and girls home." He was looking to many Americans like a weakling.
But the Obama strategy for change that he believes in, we can now see, is one of purposeful, but slow change. And so, in his speech Tuesday night, he began with a touching opening on bringing the troops home from Iraq and what it meant -- then he ended it with a remembrance of how his administration was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden and what that meant.
I always wondered how a mixed-race man from Hawaii, trained in legal procedures at Harvard and experienced as a community organizer in Chicago, without any personal military training or any experience of Army life, could be actively pro-military -- but Barack Obama is. He speaks of our troops almost with deep affection, often mentioning how his grandfather was in Patton's Army.
Moreover, there was one real giveaway of this affection in his speech. While talking about the troops leaving Iraq, he used the moment to convey to the country the understanding that everyday cooperation, today so painfully lacking, might be patterned on military unity.
Their achievements, he said, 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."
Included in his ideas about change is one that would importantly address the fact that many industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can fill them. He outlined one important example of attacking this educational problem: the Siemens gas turbine factory in Charlotte, N.C., which formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The college will train the necessary workers and Siemens will hire them.
"We should make community colleges career centers," he said.
This, of course, is what is done massively in Germany, and it is one major reason why Germany's flexible and highly trained work force and economy have survived the recent recessionary trends so well.
Finally, President Obama took on squarely the fact that so many "American" companies have taken their factories overseas, and that the American tax code now provides tax breaks for them to do this. "Start with the tax code," he said. "No American should get advantages for moving their money overseas." He said his administration had brought twice the number of trade cases against China than earlier administrations, and that he was starting a "Trade Enforcement Unit."
This has become a special complaint among Americans now, even though it started some 20 years ago with the excitement over globalization. Americans are tired of big American companies like General Electric that keep their money overseas while we sink into debt. It may well be that presumed Republican candidate Mitt Romney will suffer from this, since it was revealed this week that he had special accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
In short, President Obama's speech was a politically deft and polished one, given with far more zip and dash than his earlier ones. If he can translate these revealing dreams into reality, he will surely become the president he envisions himself to be.