Commentary: A Speech by a President Who Sees Things Differently

President Obama offers an emotional call to fight gun violence and voter disenfranchisement.

President Obama offered a laundry list of proposals that were largely centered on bolstering America’s middle class. But what gave his State of the Union address searing resonance was the president’s emotional call for sensible gun violence prevention measures coupled with his poignant demand for fairer and more democratic voting policies in the United States.
The two issues, which have rarely if ever been the focus of presidential messages historically, were powerfully presented by Obama in the most gripping passages of his address.  And, let’s face it: State of the Union speeches are not particularly well known for their emotional impact.
Interestingly, these were not topics that were uppermost on the minds of most the electorate — nor the candidates — a year ago. But the events at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and another in a park in the South Side of Chicago have utterly altered the landscape of the nation’s public policy agenda. So, too, have the long voting lines of 2012, the shortened early voting periods and the Republican-led restrictive voter identification laws aimed at keeping Black and brown people from casting ballots.
“When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right [to vote] simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” the president said rightly.
He then announced a bit of news: That he was forming a non-partisan commission “to improve the voting experience in America.” He further added that this commission would be headed by the top attorneys for both his own 2012 campaigns as well as that of Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger.
It was heartening to see that the president’s progressive rhetoric of on the steps of Congress at his inauguration was still in effect inside the capital. He discussed poverty with a passion that not been heard since Lyndon B. Johnson addressed Congress in the 1960s. A call for an increase in the minimum wage to $9 is a bread-and-butter issue for economically struggling Americans. He called for wider early childhood education. He reminded Americans that climate change is real and needs to be addressed and that gay Americans should have all the protections and amenities of any other citizens.
But the real emotional centerpiece was the call for reforming the nation’s gun laws. Speaking to a gallery with more than two dozen invited guests who had lost family members to gun violence, the president demonstrated how important it is for Congress to at least take a vote on tougher laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Included in that audience in the hall were Nathaniel and Cleopatra Pendleton, whose 15-year-old daughter, Hadiya, was gunned down while innocently avoiding the rain in a Chicago park. Also there was former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was nearly killed by gun violence in her Tucson district.
“I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence,” the president said, underscoring the emotional impact of the recent killings. “But this time is different.”
Indeed, so.  In a nation that has seen more than 1,000 deaths by gun violence in the two months since the Newtown massacre in December, this time is different. When the nation lives in an age of more than 40 deaths by gun violence in Chicago in January alone, this time is different. When a member of Congess can be shot in the parking lot of a shopping center of her district and when gunfire rages in a Colorado movie theater, this time is profoundly different.
Obama himself is somehow different. The conciliatory, diplomatic approach of the first term has clearly given way to a president who trusts Congress less and is happy to flex his muscles to work around Congress to press the envelope. He is unbound by the caution that preceded the 2012 election. He seems to feel an urgency about pursuring his agenda. And the nation’s public policy debate, and indeed the country itself, are better off for it.

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

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