Rarely does a response to the State of the Union address stick with listeners longer than it takes to give it, but the country would do well to consider last year’s rebuttal ahead of President Trump’s second State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Speaking on behalf of the Democrats, Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy addressed a crowd at a local technical school last year and delivered this insightful conclusion:
“Politicians can be cheered for the promises they make. Our country will be judged by the promises we keep.”
It’s a truth with which many Americans would agree, but how many live it?
Kennedy’s statement cuts deeper than asking politicians to keep their promises. The “we” is directed at all Americans, as in what are we doing to keep our promises to our fellow countrymen? Are we more concerned about pointing fingers at others than we are about executing our own obligations? The answers to those questions will define the true state of the union more accurately than any president speaking with bombast or hyperbole.
The country needs an army of citizens doing good if it is ever to lift up the downtrodden and pave the way for a more prosperous future. Homelessness, addiction, isolation, contempt, intolerance and division plague the nation, but it’s not just politicians who have the duty to solve these problems. “We the people of the United States” are ultimately responsible for the state of the country and the charge to bear each others’ burdens and make every community better.
That looks like a teenager who shovels the walk of an elderly neighbor or a family who volunteers at the homeless shelter. It sounds like colleagues with opposite views asking questions to understand each others’ system of beliefs.
At every turn, Americans must face the promise they’ve made to make this country “a more perfect union.”
Every day millions of Americans silently keep that promise without news coverage, thought for reward or a promise of political windfall. Too many, however, are content retreating to their echo chambers convinced that society’s ills are the other side’s problem. If they believe it is someone else’s problem, they aren't likely to become part of the solution.
In one of the grandest speeches in American history, Abraham Lincoln celebrated those who had kept their promises through the last full measure of devotion. He then pivoted to the living with a challenge that extends to every American today: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Will the American people be resolved, dedicated and determined to keep the promises of these “united states”?
The president will talk to the country on Tuesday and paint a picture of the state of the union. It will, as Kennedy said, likely be filled with cheering politicians applauding grand promises. But the real work will be done when Americans, in the words of the poet, understand they have promises to keep and miles to go before they sleep.