As I listened to the opening to the State of the Union speech, I know I was going to have a rough night. Last week, I spent a couple hours on the phone with a seminary friend. One of her daughter’s friends from high school was just killed in Afghanistan as a member of the Indiana National Guard, and my friend was trying to deal with the effect this is having both on her daughter and also the mother of the dead soldier (who was also a friend of my friend).

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. . . .

I’m sorry, but our military adventurism has not made us safer, nor more respected, and to start the speech like this really put me off.

As one who makes a lot of public speeches, I was struck by the way in which this speech was structured. In particular, I quickly noticed that the way in which each issue was laid out followed the same pattern.

Before Obama made any kind of progressive-leaning statement or proposal, he always seemed to embrace or praise some kind of conservative sentiment or talking point first. When talking about the “house of cards” that is the housing industry mess, he criticized homeowners first and banks second. When talking about tax reforms, relief for corporations came first. When talking about education, raising standards came first, and criticizing shortsighted budget cuts came second. When talking about students, mandating education up to age 18 came first, before raising the issues of college affordability or post-college jobs.

Oh, wait a minute.

(scrolls through text of the speech again)

He didn’t say anything about these grads getting jobs after college. My bad.

Or his.

*sigh*

When talking about “American-made energy,” Obama spent paragraphs praising the oil and natural gas industries before saying one word about alternatives. Every single time, no matter what the issue, it felt not as if the conservative position was a leadup to the something stronger from the progressive end of things, but rather that progressive-leaning positions were being given the rhetorical back seat.

*sigh*

The financial crimes unit stuff really ticked me off. “So pass legislation that makes the penalties for fraud count,” he said, but passing legislation makes no difference if charges never get filed and cases do not get tried. Robo-signing and forgery are already criminal acts, lying to grand juries and judges is already illegal, and robosigning on a massive scale is a conspiracy to commit fraud. You don’t need new legislation to file these charges or prosecute the offenders. These are already crimes; you just need to treat them like that, rather than continuing to look for a deal that will give banks immunity for their past crimes.

Blergh.

Obama delivered the speech well, and the word had clearly gone out not to step on the rhetoric by applauding every sentence and screwing up the rhythm and flow. Kudos to whoever pushed the Congress critters not to turn this into an applause circus.

Oddly, given the prominence given to the conservative issues and talking points throughout the speech, as well as the hagiographic depiction of the military, the very last paragraph was a very pleasant surprise.

No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.

(Am I way off base for thinking Obama probably needs to thank Elizabeth Warren for essentially writing it? See her comments here, starting at about the 0:55 mark.)

The repetition of “This nation is great because . . .” rang the changes of progressive thinking without apology. There was no “this nation is great because we’ve got bigger weapons” or “larger navies” or “more precise drones.” There was no “this nation is great because it’s every man for himself in the jungle of the market.”

No, the greatness of our nation — our true greatness — comes not from our military might but our unity of purpose, and not just any purpose but the purpose proclaimed in a document that begins “We the people of the United States . . .” and laid out more fully in the words that follow:

. . . in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .

It’s a pity that more of the speech wasn’t built around that theme of what makes this nation great. Instead, Obama reached again and again to the talking points of the right first, then gestured left, hoping again for a middle ground that does not exist.