Members of Congress, honored guests, my fellow Americans, and all who are watching, I am pleased to be here in this hallowed hall to fulfill my constitutional obligation to deliver to Congress my assessment of the state of our union.
It is an obligation I do not take lightly. In preparing this address, I like all my predecessors, stepped back from the day-to-day concerns of my office to take a longer view of things. Where have we been in this last year, and where might we dream to go in the future? Those are far different than the questions that generally come from a president’s mouth, like “who am I meeting with in ten minutes?” and “where’s the briefing book on that?”
In the past, these speeches have taken all kinds of forms. Indeed, for quite some time, the state of the union address was not an address at all, but a written report sent from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other.
In shaping this State of the Union address, I want to build on the manner in which the members of the House chose to open this session of Congress, with a dramatic reading of the Constitution of the United States. No moment was more powerful than John Lewis’ recitation of the 13th Amendment, and the cheers and applause with which his reading was greeted by the members on both sides of the aisle.
As I reflected on how to talk about the state of our union, my thoughts turned to the powerful words that introduce the Constitution. These words lay out purposes to which our nation has been committed from the very day of its adoption. These words lay down markers by which our more recent actions might be measured, and to which our future actions might aspire.
“We the People of the United States, in order to . . .”
That’s how it starts. Before the constitution gets into the structure of the three branches of the government, and before it get into talking about the powers and restrictions on each of those branches, before any of that, it talks about purpose — specifically, it talks about six purposes for the creation of our federal government.
Number one: ” . . . form a more perfect union. . .”
- The framers called it “more perfect” and not “perfect.” They knew they were fallible and that it could be improved, and they immediately set about doing so with the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
- 150 years ago today, that young union stood on the brink of dissolution. We had fought one war with the British to create the union, and were about to fight a second war among ourselves to preserve it and refine it.
- 95 years ago, Jeannette Rankin of Montana — a Republican and a pacifist — was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives.
- 90 years ago, the first Congress was seated that was elected by both men and women voting in every state.
- 60 years ago, term limits were placed upon the office of President.
- 40 years ago, 18 year olds were given the right to vote, to match their obligation to fight and die in war at that same age.
- 25 years ago, the first federal holiday in honor of Dr. MLK Jr. was observed.
- Today, here in this federal city, we labor — or we ought to labor — to continue that work at making our union more perfect.
But how? The Preamble goes on to tell us how: ” . . . establish justice . . .”
- Justice is a shared task. Congress is to write laws, the Executive is to enforce them, and the Judicial branch is to adjudicate them — together, all three are needed as checks and balances against one another.
- Justice is not a one-time event, but is repeated each and every day as disputes both civil and criminal are adjudicated.
- Justice is established when government’s powers are limited and all people have the right of habeas corpus, to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, to confront accusers and witnesses, and to a trial before a jury of one’s peers.
- To this end — the establishment of justice — we promise here and now: an end to warrantless searches via wiretaps, an end to indefinite detention without charge and without trial and without appeal, an end to the protection of those who committed torture claiming to be serving the nation, and an end to one set of rules for the rich and another for everyone else.
And the Preamble goes on: “. . . insure domestic tranquility. . .”
- From local zoning laws to federal workplace safety rules, governments at all levels work to prevent disputes from arising in the first place.
- Gone, for example, are the days of Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle”, replaced with rules and regulations governing both worker safety and food safety. With well understood and properly enforced rules, the brute forces of the marketplace are tamed. Businesses know the limits placed on them are also placed on their competitors, to preserve fairness in the market. Workers know they are protected as they go about their work. The general public knows that its food supply is safe.
- Ahead, we must work to properly regulate — or should I say “re-regulate”? — certain aspects of our society. In particular, the excesses of the financial industry and the mortgage industry must be reined in. The establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is but a start — this work must continue.
And the Preamble goes on: ” . . . provide for the common defense. . .”
- The preamble did not say “provide the means to build an empire through force.” The preamble did not say “provide for the taking of resources from others too weak to defend themselves.” The preamble spoke of “defense” as a purpose for our union, and it is “defense” by which we must measure our military’s preparations, its actions, and its future.
- I am delighted that Congress has finally begun the process to remove the prohibition against gays and lesbians who wish to serve our nation with military service. All citizens should be able to serve their nation, regardless of their sexual orientation. The task of our common defense must be open to all.
- I am committed to ending our military presence in Iraq. I am committed to ending our military presence in Afghanistan. While our enemies are surely there, our presence there hinders our defense rather than assists it. Our defense would be stronger with less military involvement and more political and economic involvement, and that is the direction in which I will take matters as commander in chief.
And the Preamble goes on: ” . . . promote the general welfare . . .”
Whenever the story of our nation is told, those deeds that were done for the general welfare surely must rank near the top.
- Look at the Northwest Ordinance — an act older than the constitution — which set aside a portion of land in every township for public education. Our founders were committed to public, federal support for education. People who can read and write and learn are people who can invent and improve and create — and it all starts with education.
- Look at the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, and the National Parks today.
- Look at Teddy Roosevelt’s trustbusting, and the creation of the civil service that took much of the patronage out of governing, helping to create a level playing field for all.
- Look at the achievements in public health — research, testing, inoculations, treatments, and more. Gone are the days of schools and pools closed because of an outbreak of polio or the mumps, thanks in large measure to the efforts of those who work in the field of public health.
- Look at the National Weather Service and National Aeronautics and Space Administration: a combination of agencies that has done incredible work to assist farmers in their planting, tending, and harvesting; as well as helping people around the world by tracking of blizzards, heat waves, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Where once we measured hurricane damage primarily in lives lost, today those in the path of a hurricane are much more likely to lose their homes than their lives [Word doc]. Property can be replaced, but lives cannot — and thanks to scientists at NWS and NASA, communities at risk can prepare in advance, and the loss of life has dropped dramatically.
- We will not rest on the past, but continue to work to promote the general welfare. We labored long during 2010 to improve our health insurance, but even more critical is that we improve our means of actually providing health care. Our predecessors labored to clean up our air and our water, and we must turn to the task of preserving our planet from the disaster of climate change.
And the Preamble goes on: ” . . . and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity . . .”
- 125 years ago, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty. Inscribed on her pedestal are the immortal words of Emma Lazarus: “give me your poor, your tired, your troubled masses yearning to breathe free . . . ” We are a nation filled with people who came here for a better life, not just for themselves but for their children — and we must continue in that tradition.
- 70 years ago, the Star Spangled Banner was adopted as our national anthem, describing in song the spirit of the Preamble’s writers that their words — this Constitution — were not simply about that day and age, but something to which this nation will look in all the days and years that have followed. Daily we aspire to live up to the call to be “the land of the free” despite all the forces that may be arrayed against us.
What is our business here tonight? What is our business here tomorrow, and next week, and next month? It’s all right there in the Preamble.
Justice. Domestic tranquility. Common Defense. General Welfare. Liberty. All these, combining to form a more perfect union.
All these things, said the preamble, led the founders of this nation to “ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.” It makes for a great song, and an even greater explanation for what we are called to do as representatives, senators, members of the judiciary, members of the executive branch, and as citizens.
Thank you, Members of Congress, thank you honored guests, and thank you most especially to all who claim to belong to “We, the People.” This is our union, this is our government, and this is our heritage that we shall pass down to our children, stronger and more perfect than it was when it was given to us.
Thank you, and good night.
No, I’m not going to end it with “and God bless the United States of America.” Presidents and our nation got along just fine before Ronald Reagan started including this conclusion to every speech as a way to reach out to a certain segment of his base.