Just in case we forgot, during the State of the Union address President Obama reminded his audience three times that as Americans, we are nothing if not a “decent” people. Because of our “great decency and great strength,” the president has “never been more hopeful about America’s future.” Amidst the partisan rancor, Obama vowed to soldier on in order to help “the American people get a government that matches their decency.” Indeed, what keeps him “going,” and “fighting,” is the “spirit of determination and optimism—that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people.” One generally ignores such political corn, chalking it up as a legacy bestowed by Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart to our national discourse. But such a great and fundamental part of the American character merits at least occasional scrutiny.
There are, of course, many meanings to “decency.” What Obama refers to here is that we are “respectable; worthy.” Yet from Wall Street to K Street, a “decency deficiency” seems to have emerged of late. Perhaps this is why the president went out of his way to stress this essential quality in this year’s speech. Only eleven months ago, in his first address to a joint session of Congress—when, according to the AP, he spoke before an “ebullient Democratic majority”—Obama identified “a generosity, a resilience, a decency, and a determination that perseveres” as the core qualities of the American people. Despite, or maybe because of, the debacles experienced during his first year in office, we are now apparently three times more decent. Relative to the folks operating inside the Beltway, such a measurement seems a gross understatement.
In any case, when will the respectable and worthy American people “get a government that matches our decency”? I suppose that depends on how one defines the term as it pertains to policy. Unlike a second stimulus or a real jobs program, Obama’s neoliberal nostrums—a partial budget freeze, targeted tax cuts, a special commission to target Medicaid and Social Security benefits—offer scant hope of a more prosperous future. In fact, as remedies for the current economic crisis, they are not even “adequate,” which is another meaning of decent. An “adequate government for a decent people” is not the stuff of political boilerplate—but at this point, it seems like the change we will have to create.