The State of The Union: US Army Ranger Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg – A Visual Metaphor For Our Nation


If you tuned-in to President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, then you glimpsed perhaps one of the best, if not most optimistic speeches he or any other President has ever delivered to Congress.  But with his 43% approval rating at its lowest ever, and with 62% of the nation polling that “we are on the wrong track,” along with a $17 trillion dollar deficit, America’s infrastructure crumbling, and Obamacare’s implementation being less than ideal, anything less from a President facing such odds would have been unexceptional.  Furthermore, if his speech had not had such awe-inspiring rhetoric, the casket on Obama’s “lame-duck” last two years as President would have assuredly been sealed.  Ours is a Nation whose middle class is still suffering from, and may never recover from the “Great Recession of 2008.”  Perhaps that is why President Obama made certain to appeal to those suffering the most, the poor and middle class, and chose to send them yet again a message of hope.

From the beginning, President Obama started knocking optimistic “home-run” remarks “out of the park” with facts like, “Lowest unemployment on record in five years,” “More oil produced at home than bought abroad, and that is the first time that has happened in 20 years,” and business investors around the globe are telling us “China is no longer the best place to invest, America is.”  According to President Obama, despite the dire statistics and current economic trends, 2014 could still be “a break through year for America.”  His speech sought to appeal to an American middle class and a “spirit of citizenship.” Throughout the speech, America’s middle class was reminded of their potential power.  This was particularly true when the President stated it should be “the power of our vote, not the size of our pocket books that drives our economy.”

This be kind to the middle class, or be ready for class warfare strategy was a smart one for Obama, because for most of his presidency, many in the middle class have felt their suffering has been ignored by Congress and the President.  However, America’s middle class doesn’t want to be forced to give-up their way of life, a way of life they’ve grown quite accustomed to.  Nevertheless, they have seen their purchasing power “sold down the river” by government spending on two wars, and further eroded by corporate tax loopholes, and unpatriotic activities.  Not to mention all the ridiculous government rules and regulations that reveal an overt corruption and manipulation of America’s economy.  A sentiment of support for “the people’s position” that “the few” in power have broadened the gap between the rich and the poor, rather than seeking to narrow it, was revealed by the President’s remarks.  As Senator Barbara Boxer stated after the speech, President Obama did make it clear he had “a middle-class agenda” moving forward.

Obama set himself up to act with or without Congressional support in a unilateral way when he stated, “America does not stand still, and neither shall I.” He renewed his challenge to Congress to close Guantanamo Bay, and said he would veto any legislation that would seek to renew or increase economic sanctions against Iran.  He said America must fix its broken immigration system now, and that he was going to change the way America conducts its surveillance at home and abroad to ensure America’s trust in its government would begin to return.  Further remarks centered on the domestic front, included that the issue of climate change “was a fact,” and that “we owe it to our children’s children” to leave them with a cleaner America.  He also conveyed that “in a rapidly changing economy Americans must have the skills necessary” to “be ready to work Americans.”

He also conveyed in no-holds-barred terms, that Congress needed to restore the unemployment benefits they had just recently let expire.  He matched a person’s face to the unemployment problem, and used his first major personal appeal of the day, when he referred to a woman’s letter to him who had recently had her unemployment benefits cut.  He read some of her letter, and challenged Congress to give people like her a chance.  He stated,  “give them a chance,” and continued with, “they need our help right now,”  “but we need them in the game.”

He also was critical of standardized testing when he made comments about testing a students knowledge beyond their capability to fill-in a bubble on a multiple choice test.  He also conveyed that he wanted to make sure kids were being reached before it was too late.  In this regard, he challenged the states “to race to the top” for America’s youngest children “by making high quality Pre-K funding a priority.”  He then went on to reach out to those who felt trapped by student loan debt, and to corporations who might be willing to give young African-American males (whose unemployment rate is the highest in the nation) a chance to get a job.  President Obama made it clear that he “didn’t want the American dream to be an empty promise.”  Which for so many Americans as of late, it has become just that.

“The equal pay for equal work” portion of President Obama’s speech sparked the most positive energy from most Democrats and other Liberals in attendance.  When President Obama referred to corporate, “policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode,” he tickled the American working class’s funny-bone.  When he chastised American companies for continued income inequality, and allowing women to continue to only earn “70 cent for every dollar an American man earns,” he shamed many in the room, and reasserted a long held Democratic feminist view that “its been a long time coming” (and still hasn’t arrived).  When he said “when women succeed, America succeeds,” he reconfirmed his commitment to be serious about using government intervention on behalf of women’s rights issues in at least the corporate arena (although he did not mention the controversial military women’s issues that have made the headlines recently).  Ultimately, these pro-women remarks seemed designed to charm American women into believing equal pay issues would be an important part of President Obama’s administration for the remainder of his presidency.

Conversely, however, this same sentiment, when linked to women struggling with their health care concerns, seemed to receive less support.  In fact, when President Obama alluded to, “a broken health care system” that “we are in the process of fixing that” many Conservatives in the room, and across America bristled.  Nevertheless, Obama made many comments to stir his Democratic base, and he tried to convince them that he and Congressional Democrats would support and encourage working men and women in America struggling to make a “living wage” far better than any Conservative ever likely would.  In his speech, he spoke directly to the American public who has been suffering, when he made statements about encouraging states and companies to pay workers more.  The desire to help American families “make ends meat,” was also bolstered by his comments for American corporations to “Give America a raise!”  From the Conservative perspective, when President Obama made it clear that he would soon implement an “executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federal employees at least $10.10 per hour,” it was a source of contention for them.  But for Obama, it was simple, for those who wash the dishes for our American troops, or who work behind the scenes to assist them in some other fashion, they “deserve not to live in poverty.”

Ted Cruz, for his part appeared to not be watching the same speech, or just simply did not trust the President’s words over his previous Presidential actions, because despite Obama’s optimistic tone for Presidential action whenever necessary, and Congressional compromise whenever possible, Cruz made it clear in his remarks after the speech that Obama “doesn’t talk with Congress.”  He went on to say that in relation to the recent government shutdown, the President had called them into a meeting about the issue, and had said to them, “I will not compromise, I will not negotiate on anything.”  So in Cruz’s opinion, and for many others on the other side of the aisle, he believed Obama “is not interested in compromising.”  His argument was basically that if the President was serious about compromising on economic issues, and wanted to stimulate construction jobs, he would encourage Harry Reid to allow a vote on the Key Stone Pipeline project.  President Obama, for his part, said “I’ll cut red-tape in red states to get these policies past” in relation to putting natural gas on a fast-track to increasing clean energy production.  But Cruz chose to convey to Obama, “Don’t add regulations, and red tape.”  Clearly indicating he did not believe what he was hearing.  So it remains to be seen, whether or not an “imperial presidency strategy” as Ted Cruz puts it, will actually reach and appeal to so many Americans who now desperately want action.

The official G.O.P. response to the President’s speech came from Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a college educated woman who put herself through college by working at the drive-through at McDonalds, and so it was clear from the start that they too were speaking to the middle class.  It was also clear from the very beginning, that she was going to perpetuate the “different vision” concept when early on in her speech she conveyed the following:

“Tonight the President made more promises that sound good, but won’t solve the problems actually facing Americans.  We want you to have a better life.  The President wants that too. But we part ways when it comes to how to make that happen.  So tonight I’d like to share a more hopeful, Republican vision…  One that empowers you, not the government…”Read more:   Ultimately, her speech was perceived as flat by the Democrats, and as a fresh face providing a clearly different vision for America’s future than the one President Obama has in mind.  But, at this point, many must wonder if the G.O.P. is not in total disarray, with four responses to the State of the Union address (if not five) – one was in Spanish – it creates an impression that the G.O.P. is being pushed (if not pulled) in many different directions by various “cult of personality” political figures within their party.

For his part, President Obama challenged Congress to a “a year of action,” rather than continued Conservative efforts to repeal the Affordable Health Care act.  Apparently, 40 times was “more than enough” in the President’s view.  He made it clear to all in attendance that he viewed such political obstructionist efforts and lawsuits from the political right as a detrimental force blocking positive political and economic change within America.  President Obama was also quick to point out early on, “The question for everyone in this chamber, is whether [you] are going to help or hinder this progress.”  He conveyed the impression that America is still a land of opportunity for us all, when he stated, “opportunity is who we are.”  He also tickled America’s funny bone a bit further when he reminded his audience of Speaker Boehner’s rise to political prominence from the hard work and humble beginnings of his bar-keep father’s example.  But he was less humorous, but no less inspiring, when he re-reminded Americans of his own monumental rise to power from a humble childhood being raised by a single-mother.

At a moment when he could have been far more combative, President Obama reminded America and Congress in far fewer words than President Bill Clinton’s stinging 1996 State of the Union address (the last time such a speech was delivered after not one but two Federal government shutdowns) that we have been hopelessly divided by an unproductive and distracting government shutdown.  In just a few eloquent lines, he stated the problem so succinctly, near the beginning of his address, when he said the following:

“For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government.”  He went on to say, “It’s an important debate — one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy — when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States — then we are not doing right by the American people.”

It was at this specific moment in his speech that he rhetorically slapped the Tea-Party’s hand (or perhaps “face” might be a better descriptor) for acting in a political self-serving way, when what the nation needed was cooperation and positive government action rather than inaction.  This powerful argument by the President conveyed to the Tea Party and the American people that the government shut-down, and the resultant lowering of America’s credit rating was a shameful and destructive tactic that only served to prolong the American middle class’s suffering.

But then President Obama took his “personal appeal” rhetoric to an all new high, or perhaps an all new low, depending on your perspective.  In what CNN’s Anderson Cooper called “The most moving moment of the entire evening” Obama introduced US Army Ranger Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, told his harrowing war story, and spoke about his difficult road to recovery.  President Obama had met Sergeant Remsburg three times.  He met him first during the 2009 Summer D-day anniversary, and then later that year, Sergeant Rembsurg was hit by IED shrapnel serving his country near Kandahar province in Afghanistan.   He was found face-down, drowning in a flooded road-side ditch.  The shrapnel caused extensive damage to his brain, his right eye, and nerve damage to the left side of his body.  But he survived, and last summer President Obama saw him again in a V.A. hospital when he could not even talk.  It was there that the President was faced with the stark juxtaposition of witnessing someone who had once been healthy, but who, because of America’s longest war, had now been almost mortally wounded.  Hardly a dry eye could be seen within the Congressional chambers, and the longest standing ovation for the night was received not by the President, but by Sergeant Rembsurg.

In that politically charged moment of poignant Presidential theatrics, Sergeant Remsburg, who had served an amazing total of 10 tours in harms way, became a visual metaphor for America’s own war ravaged state of affairs.  The image of him saluting our President in Chief, and our President saluting him back, was a very powerful symbol of America’s own honorable struggle to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and do the hard work necessary to find our way back to the road to recovery again.  The stark and tragic visual of seeing him humbly wave at the President seemed to convey that as a nation, we might be battered, bruised, and might even have permanent shrapnel wounds, but we could overcome them.  The image of this horribly injured soldier who could still smile conveyed that America’s central nerve center of our entire nation might be horribly damaged, but the body politic could survive.  This was a very powerful image, for surely after the latest government “show-down,” I mean shut-down, Washington will never be the same.  But with a hope, with a determination, and with a blind patriotism that obscures the fact America will never be the same either, we were given an image of a man who showed us all that we must keep struggling forward, whether God blesses us for our patriotic efforts or not.

Towards the end of President Obama’s State of the Union address, he spelled-out the difficult challenge ahead for every American wanting to make our country great again.  Clearly, he used Sergeant Remsburg’s example of patriotic service to make an important political point.  President Obama made a dramatic and emotional speech that pulled at America’s heart strings, when he provided details of the Sergeant’s road to recovery. “Day by day he has learned to speak again, and stand again, and walk again, and he is working towards a time when he can serve America yet again.”  The President went on to say to the crowd (and to all of America) that “Nothing in life is easy.”  The audience was encouraged by the visual and the speech to make a link between Sergeant Remsburg’s patriotism and sacrifice, and the patriotism and sacrifice Americans themselves must be prepared to make, when the President went on to say about Remsburg that he “never gives up, and he does not quit.”  Encouragement and hope for a better tomorrow for all Americans was visually reinforced by the Sergeant’s great sacrifice, and from the President’s statement that “It is you, our citizens that make the state of the union strong!”

76% of viewers who watched gave a “positive, or somewhat positive” response to the President’s speech.  But one must keep in mind, when a Democratic President gives the State of the Union, more pro-Democrats tend to watch the speech, and vice-versa for a Republican.  Despite this fact, even Newt Gingrich begrudgingly admitted it was a good speech.  But even though it ended-up being a good speech, perhaps even a great speech, it was still ultimately a very long speech.  A long speech with a very long list of Presidential promises to be kept via more government intervention, at a time when America can’t afford to raise taxes.  Likewise, many moments during the speech seemed forced, if not down-right fake, and Congressional clapping was also relatively infrequent from both sides of the aisle.  In fact, Congressional leaders often only rose to Obama’s powerful words when they would see the camera’s being turned on above them.  So, “even if the people are watching,” politicians on both sides of the aisle obviously know how to put on a good show for the American voter whether it will make any difference in the American people’s lives or not.  However, hopefully, only reacting when you’re being watched, will not be President Obama’s, or his “Republican friends,” only measure of success moving forward in implementing the lofty goals expressed in this State of the Union address.

For if appearances have become the primary political currency over real substance today, then surely our Congress and our President are doing a disservice to our country, to the American middle class, to Sergeant Remsburg, and to all American personnel who have fallen in recent wars fighting to preserve America’s freedom.  When one gazes for long at the irreparable damage done to Sergeant Remsburg, and when one considers how few and far between the economic opportunities for America’s middle-class are to actually elevate America back to its previous levels of greatness, it begs the question to ask: Has America become to jaded and cynical to believe in patriotic Presidential speeches anymore, and can we afford any longer to take a politician at merely their word?  At this point, with so many suffering in America, actions speak louder than words, and Sergeant Remsburg’s 10 tours, and his self-sacrifice for all our freedoms should be the exclamation point on that harsh but important lesson learned.


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