Imagine you are a Navy SEAL, part of a team hunting down the world's most wanted terrorist. That is not the scenario of a new video game; it is the most conspicuous theme of the speech that President Obama delivered last night. Obama began and ended his State of the Union address by urging all of us to think and act more like soldiers fighting for a common cause:
We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. (Applause.) For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. (Applause.) For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. (Applause.) Most of al Qaeda's top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban's momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America's Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example….
Those of us who've been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn't matter if you're black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.
One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn't matter. Just like it didn't matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates—a man who was George Bush's defense secretary—and Hillary Clinton—a woman who ran against me for president.
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn't deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job—the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other—because you can't charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there's somebody behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I'm reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other's backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
Banal, inspiring, or creepily collectivist? You be the judge.
To some extent, Obama is addressing Republican members of Congress, implicitly rebuking them for elevating partisan politics above the public interest. He surely is right that blind partisanship, the kind that is more about tribalism than ideology, plays too big a role in politics. But to the extent that Obama clashes with Republicans because they have different ideas about how best to govern, it is not reasonable to expect them to set aside their differences for the good of the country. They believe that would be bad for the country. If there is no real substance to these differences, why doesn't Obama just go along with everything the Republicans want? His notion of content-free unity among politicians, regardless of party, simply elevates mindless tribalism to a higher level.
There's a reason that politics in a constitutional democracy does not resemble the military chain of command: No single person is in charge—not even the president. People disagree not only about how to accomplish the "mission" but about what the mission is. According to The New York Times, Obama wants to "use government power to balance the scale between America's rich and the rest of the public." I don't even know what that means, but I'm supposed to fall in line anyway?
By the end of his speech, it is clear that Obama is urging this military mindset on all Americans, not just politicians. We are all supposed to "work…as a team," "get each other's backs," "maintain our common resolve," and "join…in common purpose" so we can accomplish our "mission." But if America has a mission, it is to guard people's liberty so they can accomplish their own missions, whether as individuals or in voluntary cooperation with their families, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. That concept is completely at odds with the idea of all Americans putting their own interests aside and following government orders like good soldiers in the service of a mission defined by their superiors. And the difference between those two visions is, I think, worth fighting over.