I have been addicted to politics since childhood so I grew up watching our Presidents deliver “State of the Union” speeches on the old family black and white television going back to the days of Lyndon Johnson. In fact, one of my favorite pastimes as a kid was writing the President with a laundry list of questions, most dealing with the Vietnam War. I still have a few of the letters I received back from the White House framed in my office. Having been involved in politics, as a consultant and journalist, and having witnessed more than my fair share of major events, including inaugurations, nothing compared to the rush I felt last night watching President Obama speak to a joint session of Congress.
To hear the cry - “Madame Speaker. The President of the United States.” - and see a Black man walk through the large doors in the chamber of the House of Representatives, introduced as the commander-in-chief was awe inspiring. To watch a still mostly white chamber of members of Congress rise to their feet in recognition of the Constitutional authority held by this Black man sent chills through me. To see the President escorted by Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Black member of Congress from South Carolina, and greeting other Black members of Congress, such as Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., Rep. Al Green and Rep. Barbara Lee, as he strode down the aisle reminded me of dues paid and justice redeemed. The sight of a Black woman in the gallery, sitting regally as our nation’s First Lady, made me think of Tubman, Hamer, Chisholm, Baker Motley, Parks and Baker, and the countless Black women who have stood-in and stood up throughout our nation’s existence.
Make no mistake about it. Barack Hussein Obama is the President of the United States, and in word and appearance, he sent a clear message to the world that change is not just about rhetoric, it is about transformation. He is the transformative figure that is the embodiment of a re-imagining of America. Yes, we still fall short on many fronts, but forty years after watching LBJ stand at that podium, I saw a solitary figure who, in just the span of thirty days, has redefined the aspirational horizon of a generation of Black Americans.
It is as if someone lifted the shades and let the sunshine back into our country. After eight years of watching a President stumble over his words to the point of being near intelligible, it was refreshing to hear and see a very articulate President commanding the podium. The sense of calm Mr. Obama evokes in this time of national crisis is just the elixir the country needs to regain its footing and confidence that today’s difficulties are solvable and a new era of American prosperity is within reach. It was also refreshing to hear a President speak truthfully about the circumstances that led us into this hole we are working to dig out of. There was no sugar coating, no back pedaling, no confusion; just a straightforward message that by all accounts was received well throughout the country by Democrats and Republicans alike according to post-speech surveys. Every elected official should have been taking notes Tuesday night because school was definitely in session.
To be sure, Mr. Obama has a tough road ahead to travel. All of the initiatives he outlined in his speech will require some heavy lifting and some convincing of a core group of Republicans in both chambers. Even with the political minefields he will have to tread President Obama set a tone last night that significantly raised the bar for all of us. Much like Franklin Roosevelt calling the nation to arms in the wake of Pearl Harbor, John Kennedy challenging the nation to reach the moon, and Lyndon Johnson declaring “we shall overcome” in the midst of the struggle for Black voting rights, President Obama used a Black child to remind us that we are not a nation of quitters.
One day we may all look back at that speech and tell our grandchildren that a Black man saved America.