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The policy specifics were saved for another day. But in presenting his vision of America’s shared sense of purpose, Obama focused on resolving urgent immigration problems, addressing the threat of climate change and ensuring equal rights for gay Americans.
The president’s speech was largely focused on a progressive domestic agenda. And it is obvious that Republicans will put forward a competing vision of Americans’ common creed. Obama’s focus on social equality, collective action and central government goes back to the Great Society, the New Deal and the progressive movement. Republicans’ emphasis on individualism, entrepreneurialism and the power of local communities can be traced to Thomas Jefferson’s suspicion of collective power.
This has been one of America’s underlying tensions, all the way back to the nation’s founding. That it remains with us today is why liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans should pay special heed to this section of Obama’s address Monday: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time. For now, decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle.”
Both parties indeed are confusing absolutism with principle. Going forward, our leaders need a new sense of practicality. Pragmatism may not be part of our founding creed, but it is how the president and Congress — together — can give meaning to our ideals.