Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?—Barack Obama, State of the Union, 12 January 2016
I like to cook. I’m not a gourmet chef by any stretch of the imagination, nor do I want to be. I’m less interested in presentation and more interested in whether the children will actually eat what’s prepared. Subtle nuances of flavor are lost on a six-year-old. What matters is whether we’re having mac and cheese, and if not, why?
My style of cooking is inelegant, homespun even, and that is because I learned to cook from my mother, who learned to cook from her mother, who learned to cook from her mother who was full-blood Cherokee. In addition to how to make biscuits and gravy and the perfect pan stuffing, Mother taught me three basic rules that I’ve found apply not only to cooking, but to much of life as well. You’ve almost certainly heard them as they weren’t original with her. Those rules are:
- Too many cooks spoil the broth
In other words, sometimes you need to get out of the way, shut your mouth, and let someone else lead without you butting in every two minutes.
- A watched pot never boils
Micromanaging just makes things take longer; let matters that can proceed on their own while you go do something else, like chopping those onions.
- There are times for stirring the pot and times for tasting the stew
You stir to make sure everything is blended; you taste to make sure you did it right.
As I sat watching President Obama’s final State of the Union address, it occurred to me that there was a cooking analogy to be made here. Throughout his speech, the President went back and forth between stirring the pot and tasting the stew. There was much in this speech that is immensely quotable and I’m sure historians will refer back to it often after he’s left office. Where the President stirred the pot are the times he challenged our ability to work together for the good of the country. Then, the times he sounded more like a preacher would be the times he was tasting the stew, making sure we understand what he’s gotten right.
For those of you having some trouble with the metaphor, please allow me to explain. Here are some instances from the speech where the President was stirring the pot:
- Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.
Stir in some pepper there, Mr. President. Republicans have been trying to find ways to paint the economy as weak for over two years. This is a hot-button issue on the campaign trail. When it comes to actual numbers on the economy, Republicans have a problem.
- … some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber. For everyone else, especially folks in their forties and fifties, saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher.
That was pure cayenne. One could see several members on both sides of the aisle shift uncomfortably in their seats. Members of Congress know they’re out of touch, but they’re too afraid to do anything about it.
- Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did.
Sugar. Expect to see this quote in a political meme coming soon to your social media feeds. This type of rhetoric tastes good, but too often they’re empty calories that result in no real change.
- Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.
Let’s add a little corn starch and get thick into the topic of climate change, something the President spoke to often during the speech, and calling out those who deny it. The right side of the chamber was unmoved and possibly scorched a little on this one because the reference was too obvious to be denied.
- But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their [terrorists] hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence.
The bite of a little onion hits here and the President stirs it vigorously, attacking the notion that he has somehow been weak on terrorism. He’s directly challenging the warmongers both in Congress and at the state level. Chances are the President’s perspective might cause those in the military industrial complex to cry a bit.
- When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.
Meat, hot, seared, and changing the entire flavor of the stew as it is stirred into the pot. If this sounds like a direct slap at one specific presidential candidate, it is; but it is also an indictment of many people across America who have bought into the concept that Muslims are inherently bad. Be sure, a lot of people are going to chew on this throughout the election cycle.
For his last State of the Union address, I think a lot of analysts were surprised as just how much stirring of the pot the President did. Framing his speech around four questions gave him ample opportunity to both challenge Republicans and suggest that he’s not taking it easy for the remainder of his term. He’s quite full of vinegar and isn’t afraid to mix it up.
Then, there are the moments where he stops and, in a delicious oratorial style unlike any we’ve seen in this generation, President Obama tasted the stew with statements that, paraphrasing “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson, allows us to taste what the President has been cooking. I don’t think these statements require any explanation so I’ll just let them stand on their own.
- We live in a time of extraordinary change — change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world. It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.
- … the United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the ’90s; an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever. Manufacturing has created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years. And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters.
- That spirit of discovery is in our DNA. We’re Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. We’re Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. We’re every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world. And over the past seven years, we’ve nurtured that spirit.
- Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past forty years, I’m putting [Vice President] Joe [Biden] in charge of Mission Control. For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.
- The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us.
- So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.
The President ended his final State of the Union address with a piece of emotional prose that he links to Dr. King and delivers, like a preacher, with oratorical skill and emotional conviction. The quote is long so I’ll say my goodbye here. I know some will disagree with the President and I don’t consider it my job to convince anyone one way or the other. I will say, though, that having tasted what’s in Mr. Obama’s pot, I’m grabbing a bowl and spoon and getting in line. Now, here’s the President:
It won’t be easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen — inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.
They’re out there, those voices. They don’t get a lot of attention, nor do they seek it, but they are busy doing the work this country needs doing.
I see them everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours. I see you. I know you’re there. You’re the reason why I have such incredible confidence in our future. Because I see your quiet, sturdy citizenship all the time.
I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages to keep him on board.
I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early because he knows she might someday cure a disease.
I see it in the American who served his time, and dreams of starting over — and the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.
I see it in the soldier who gives almost everything to save his brothers, the nurse who tends to him ’til he can run a marathon, and the community that lines up to cheer him on.
It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught.
I see it in the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to; the new citizen who casts his for the first time; the volunteers at the polls who believe every vote should count, because each of them in different ways know how much that precious right is worth.
That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That’s why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong.