The Common Good

After Tucson, the State of the Union

Sojomail - January 20, 2011


"So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."

- John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, January 20, 1961. (Source: American Rhetoric)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

After Tucson, the State of the Union

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In Tucson, Arizona, President Obama spoke to the state of the nation's soul. Next Tuesday, January 25, he will speak to the state of the union. But these two topics are not as separate as they might seem. Presidents often use the State of the Union as a moment to talk about who we are, who we are not, and who we can be as a nation. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and Republican Senator Tom Coburn will sit next to one another during the president's State of the Union as a testament to where both of these senators -- who have significant disagreements -- hope our nation's soul will come to rest. I share their hope for our nation.

The speech Barack Obama gave in Tucson was a memorial to the victims of a horrible tragedy, but the spirit of his speech could also shape Tuesday's State of the Union address by calling us to be worthy of each victim's sacrifice. The political leaders of the nation have shown signs of wanting a more civil discourse, and there have even been signs of reflection and re-examination in some of our media forums. The president should continue to build on this fresh, but still frail, desire for less rancor and a more democratic conversation.

The State of the Union could be a good time to call us to move beyond the exaggeration, caricature, misinformation, and demonization that occur too often in our public discourse today. Instead, President Obama could call us to clarify honest disagreements and identify potential points of unity.

Wouldn't we all rather see the end of a recession defined by more jobs on Main Street, rather than by more profit on Wall Street? Wouldn't we all like to create jobs using methods favored by both liberals and conservatives?

Couldn't now be a time to reaffirm a national commitment to care for the widow, the orphan, and the marginalized? Couldn't we agree that Social Security is good for society, and discuss the best means to make sure it is strengthened and available for today's seniors who need it, and for generations to come?

Can't we agree to hold our biggest banks and corporations accountable to simple standards of fairness and decency, without being anti-business in ways that hurt our economy?

Wouldn't we all like to see a broken immigration system (that both parties are responsible for neglecting) reformed in a humane way, rather than hear fruitless debates over extreme views on deportation versus amnesty?

Can't we all agree that we want more people covered by health care; the most egregious practices of health-care industry reformed; and the costs of health care better controlled? Can't we work to mend the health-care reform bill, rather than participate in the partisan, symbolic, shrill, and inconsequential battles over repealing it?

Can we agree that the deficit is a moral issue, but so are the ways we choose to reduce it? Can we agree not to resolve our deficit by making our most vulnerable citizens even more vulnerable? Can we agree that powerful special interest groups should not be allowed to keep their interests off the table of scrutiny?

Can't we see that the costs of the war in Afghanistan fall on too few families; that 10 years of the same policy is enough; and that in a time of deficit, an endless war is simply unsustainable? Instead, can we talk about our responsibility to the people of Afghanistan, to our own over-stretched veterans, and to our need for "nation-building" at home?

All of this may be far too hopeful, and I certainly don't want to be simplistic. But in the field of conflict resolution, there is a common and very effective technique that is often employed: You have to state the opinion of your adversary repeatedly until they agree that you understand their position, and that they have been heard correctly. Continuing to exaggerate, distort, misrepresent, and attack the other's position or opinions will not help resolve conflicts.

I often wonder if this same discipline needs to be used in solving the nation's biggest problems. Until we have listened long enough, carefully enough, and respectfully enough to the legitimate concerns of the other side, we will never accurately understand the issues, problems, disagreements, and ways we can find possible common ground -- or, at least, the necessary compromises. Even when there are clear clashes of interests that must be debated, won, or lost, it is still helpful to understand what those differences really are.

On Tuesday, the president can help call us to a new and better national discourse. He can, and should, state his own visions, goals, and priorities, and then invite the other side to offer their own in the days ahead. Maybe, just maybe, Tucson will help us change the terms, tactics, and tenor of our political battles. And the president has the opportunity to lead the way.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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