Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama fulfilled one of the obligations put on his office by the Constitution, informing Congress on the State of the Union.
The president's speech began by stating that government is not there "to solve every problem," reminding Congress that its job is to "put the nation's business before party." What followed was a laundry list of his goals and objectives for the coming year.
Obama declared that the sequester set to go into effect in two weeks would damage the economy. He challenged Republicans to close tax loopholes as part of a comprehensive tax reform package.
Some of the items on Obama's list were clearly partisan; most have bipartisan appeal. Obama focused on familiar themes: jobs, rebuilding the country's infrastructure, education, climate change, American leadership in developing clean energy and immigration reform. He called for plans for supporting entrepreneurial activity. He asked for government support to businesses hiring the long-term unemployed. He announced plans to create "manufacturing hubs" in 15 cities, and for closing tax loopholes as part of an effort to restore fairness to our tax policy.
By far, the most passionate part of the speech was his call for Congress not to pass, but just to hold a vote on gun control legislation.
He reminded us that a 15-year-old girl, Hadiya Pendleton was shot to death just one week after participating in his inauguration, saying "Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence - they deserve a simple vote."
His rhetoric was intended to move a dysfunctional Congress to action. In the face of strong popular support for gun control, opponents of sane and reasonable measures are now on the hot seat.
That populist message was threaded through the speech. Obama declared that everyone working a full-time job should receive wages that put them above the poverty line, and so Congress should raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour and support pay equality for women. He announced plans to form a commission to improve the voting experience. Taken together with the theme of his inaugural address, "We the People," Obama presented a message of "government is We the People."
His message was one of shared action by the public and private sectors to generate economic and social progress.
Marco Rubio delivered a different message in the Republican response. That message mirrored the conservative philosophy that government is the enemy, expressed in varying shades of "more government isn't going to present more opportunities" and "it's going to create uncertainty."
Rubio's characterization of health, safety and environmental protection as "job-killing laws" emphasized his party's failure to recognize the plain fact that even though such legislation is unpopular within conservative circles, it's necessary. Just how necessary those controls are was demonstrated last week in England, where unscrupulous food producers have been getting away with substituting horse meat for beef in several packaged foods. The tea party wing would say that it's the marketer's responsibility to detect that kind of fraud, but there is a safer way.
Their response also ignored the obvious need for the kinds of projects urgently needed to rebuild roads and bridges, for example.
There are times when governments at all levels just have to find money for essential services. The response was silent on that point.
The tension between these two philosophies of government will dominate the debate on public policy for the rest of the Obama administration. How it is resolved, if it is resolved, will shape the course this country takes, whether its democratic institutions can survive, or if we will see political power concentrated in the hands of an elite minority.