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October 23, 2017

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State of the union: Strong but splintered

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On Feb. 12, President Barack Obama will deliver the State of the Union address.

On that day, which not coincidentally is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Obama will tell us the state of the union is strong. And it is — very strong. It supports the greatest military machine the world has ever known, the world’s largest economy — which is growing slowly — and a people with enviable freedoms.

Yet, America is wracked by anxiety, doubt and uncertainty. It is not just divided; it is splintered. During the Vietnam War, the country was divided; now it is splintered.

Today’s contentions are more subtle, more existential, and are often a concealment of a different frustration altogether. They are exacerbated by the lack of facts. Everyone has their own, or those handed to them by their faction.

Ergo, there are those who believe we are in need of more taxes, and those who believe that more taxes would doom the economy, and those who believe that root-and-branch reduction of the size of government can be achieved without dooming the economy.

But the real economic problems and choices now coming to a head are frequently other unspoken fears. For example, a tranche of traditional white America, expressing itself through the Tea Party movement and its Republican adherents, cannot abide the idea that they now are a political minority. They are genuinely and understandably traumatized by the changing political landscape. Their anger — this raw and molten thing, this anger — is real, but it is being manipulated by agenda pushers. These disaffected Americans are told that taxation is punitive, that abortion is sinful and that gun ownership is liberty, while government health programs equal socialism.

The sum of all their fears may be said to be socialism: a boogeyman that lurks in dark corners, ready to subvert the Constitution and all that is American. Load your AR-15 and wait for the socialist hordes, led by university professors and journalists, to lay siege to the union.

The liberal faction of the electorate is terrified of the purists on the right. Liberals believe the danger to the union lies in creationists undermining the education system and in deficits ballooning because the rich have manipulated the political system to save their own precious millions. They believe the president they voted for will be rolled by their political opponents and that they cannot trust him to defend those things they hold most dear — Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

The lack of enthusiasm for the inaugural this year is a mark of the downhearted, foreboding that the liberals feel about the current state of affairs.

Conservatives believe they have lost the White House for many elections to come, and liberals fear the same for the U.S. House of Representatives, where reapportionment has ensured a continuing conservative advantage.

In this unhappy, divided American family, there will be real consequences to getting it wrong, not petty consequences that can be corrected two years hence. If conservatives bring the government to a halt, the economy will shudder and not recover in a hurry. If Democrats cannot control expenditures, the fate will be the same but in painful slow motion.

It seems to me that we are a country that does not embrace dramatic change easily. Our political system, while allowing a president free rein abroad, is at the best of times restrictive at home, which is incidentally part of its genius.

Basic change is hard won domestically in America. Unlike the parliamentary system where you can totally and rapidly undo what your predecessor did, change is slow in the United States, and that is mostly a good thing.

But it is compounding the current crisis, which is changing from being an economic crisis into being a full-blown, constitutional crisis, centering on Medicare, the insatiable monster that is eating up the budget and that will get larger and larger helpings as America ages.

Obama needs to tell us not that the union is strong but how he will keep it that way, and how he will curb spending without inducing recession. He might start by finding out why health care, at 17 percent of gross domestic product in this country, costs twice what it does in other developed countries. If he can answer that question, he can begin to solve the problem. The union needs ministration, not convulsion.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.

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