Frank Bruni: Obama’s Magic Three
First President Obama recognized Mary Barra, who was in the audience, noting that her childhood wasn’t a gilded one—she wasn’t born into corporate royalty. No, she got there by dint of toil and talent, a factory worker’s daughter rising to become the first female chief executive officer of General Motors. She’s the American dream personified. Then Obama recognized John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, as “the son of a barkeep.” He, too, landed far from where he began. He, too, took the kind of journey that we like to believe is uniquely possible in this country, the fabled land of opportunity.
But it was also a lens through which the rest of the speech could be heard, and it was the lens through which all of us should be evaluating the policies and direction of our country right now. In paying tribute to Barra, Boehner and Barack Obama, the president was paying tribute to social mobility, and he was correctly defining the chance to better oneself—to travel from the circumstances of one’s birth to the circumstances of one’s merit and labor—as this country’s central and sustaining promise. It’s essential to our national identity. It’s vital to our sense of honor and purpose. It’s the foundation of an optimism that seems to be fading fast. If we let “the American dream” become a storybook phrase, a quaint and saccharine anachronism, no longer broadly evident and no longer widely believed, then we’re in desperate trouble.
Over the next year and the ones after that, we as a country somehow need to make sure that decades from now, a president delivering his or her State of the Union can survey the spectators and see someone like Barra; can glance back and see someone like Boehner; and can look in the mirror and see someone like the man who bridged Kenya, Kansas and the White House.