Commentary: Obama's Optimism Outshines Republican Grumbling

President’s speech was an uplifting story about American opportunity.

Posted: 01/29/2014 01:09 AM EST

The most telling moment in President Obama's State of the Union address didn't come from him. It came from Republicans.

The president had just introduced Amanda Shelley, a physician assistant and single mom from Arizona who couldn’t get health insurance until the Affordable Care Act took effect on Jan. 1. A few days after she got coverage, she felt a sharp pain, went to the hospital and had emergency surgery.  Just one week earlier, the president said, Amanda's expensive surgery would’ve meant bankruptcy for her. But because of the new health care law, she was able to be treated successfully and to sit in the first lady's box at the speech Tuesday night.

That's a compelling story about the importance of Obamacare. But Republicans didn't want to hear that message.

"Because of this law, no American can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a preexisting condition like asthma, back pain, or cancer," the president said. The crowd roared. Well, some of them did. As the camera panned the audience, dour-faced Republicans were shown sitting on their hands, refusing to applaud the simple idea of providing health care for people with pre-existing conditions.

That says almost everything you need to know about today's Republican Party. The GOP has grown out of touch with ordinary Americans, and their tone deaf response to the president indicated how they've boxed themselves into a corner.

You could see the problem when an earnest looking Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers delivered the first of four Republican responses to the State of the Union. Although she described herself as a girl who worked at the McDonald's drive-thru to pay for college, that simple attempt to humanize her party ignored the anti-worker policies they advocate. After all, that same girl who used to work at McDonald's didn't mention that she opposes efforts to raise the minimum wage for America's workers.

While Republicans were busy grumbling, President Obama struck a different tone. He delivered a very positive speech, spoken in plain language, with effective use of personal stories, and showed a willingness to act alone to lead.

"America does not stand still — and neither will I," said Obama. "So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do." And in the most famous example of that approach, the president announced that he would sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour. But then, using simple words that all of us can understand, he urged Congress to follow suit. "Give America a raise," he said.

President Obama spoke about women's rights, LGBT rights and people of color. And he announced he was reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential. One of the biggest applause lines of the night came when he called for gender pay equity. "It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode," the president said. And he implicitly called out the GOP's racially targeted voter ID laws when he reminded America that "citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote."

It was not a policy wonk speech the president delivered. It was an uplifting story about American opportunity. That message also served as a metaphor for Obama's own resilience in the face of an obstructionist opposition party. "I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress," the president said, and he mentioned issues like gun control and unemployment benefits where the public agrees with him but Congress has failed to act.

In what was the most dramatic moment of the night, the president finished his remarks by introducing Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, a disabled veteran who Obama said "never gives up, and he does not quit." The president compared Remsburg's grit to America, but he could have easily been speaking about himself as well. After everything that's taken place in his term from questioning his birth certificate to government shutdowns to a member of Congress calling him a liar in the middle of a speech, America's first Black president was still optimistic about the future.

He spoke about an American dream of opportunity that allowed the daughter of a factory worker to become CEO of America’s largest automaker, the son of a barkeeper to become Speaker of the House, and the son of a single mom to become president of the greatest nation on Earth.

Republicans can grumble all they want, but in America, optimism always wins.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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