Obama's Final State of the Union: A Return to Hope and Change

The president puts politics to the side and tells Americans not to freak out.

For his seven years as president, Barack Obama has mounted an ideological war against the Republicans. He hasn't cast it as such, and, most times, he has not matched his rhetoric with the fury of the fight. Still, this battle has raged on, as Obama has contended that communal action spearheaded by government activism is critical for repairing the economy ruined by the Bush-Cheney crash and rejiggering it so middle-class and low-income Americans can survive, and perhaps even thrive, when confronted by the mighty challenges of the 21st century. Obstructionist Republicans, naturally, have argued that government is the problem and that the old Reaganish medley of tax cuts, social-welfare program shrinkage, government downsizing, union-bashing, and regulation rollbacks is the path to prosperity. (At the same time, Obama has waged a parallel fight on national security, contending that multilateral action coupled with patient and aggressive diplomacy is a better bet than neocon hawkishness dependent on bellicose threats and the go-it-alone use of force.) In presidential speeches—State of the Union addresses, budget speeches, or on-the-road appearances—and during the 2012 campaign, Obama has repeatedly made his case: progressive-minded government is needed and delivers in this era of change and economic insecurity. And in his final State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, Obama did extend this crusade, though, for good or bad, it was not his central theme.

Instead, an upbeat Obama offered a sweeping vision of the nation's future—and tried to present a picture of an American society tapping its dynamic, can-do spirit to accomplish great things in the years ahead, if it can get its political act together.

Obama did recognize the deep divide in the political universe. Noting that it's been difficult to find bipartisan agreement in many areas these past seven years, he cited the issue of "what role the government should play in making sure the system's not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations." And he continued: "Here, the American people have a choice to make." He explained why the GOP way is bunk:

[A]fter years of record corporate profits, working families won't get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else, or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered. Food Stamp recipients didn't cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. Immigrants aren't the reason wages haven't gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It's sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts. In this new economy, workers and startups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less. The rules should work for them.

On paper, Obama certainly has a strong argument. The economy has created more jobs in the past two years than at any time since the late 1990s. The post-bail-out auto industry is booming. Following the implementation of Obamacare, the number of uninsured Americans has dropped greatly. (Premiums and health care costs are still rising, but at lower rates than before.) Americans with money to invest or speculate have seen an overall rise in the stock market. The number of people working part time who desire longer hours has dropped. There's even been a slight tick-up in wages—which for decades had flatlined, a development that led to increased income inequality. Obama pointed all this out and slammed "anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline" for "peddling fiction," while acknowledging that several long-term trends have "squeezed workers."

Still, economic insecurity bedevils the country, as a whopping majority of Americans tell pollsters that the nation is on the wrong track. After all, the financial implosion of eight years ago demonstrated how precarious the United States' economic foundation can be, especially when much of the economy is held hostage by the wheeler dealers of Wall Street. (The Dodd-Frank financial reforms Obama signed into law, despite their merits, hardly insure there will be no repeat.) And all the churn of the globalized economy—and the bouts of chaos overseas—worry Americans, who rightfully wonder whether they should ever feel at ease about their jobs (let alone jobs for their kids) and their retirement. Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" schtick exploits the new normal of uncertainty that many Americans, even those gainfully employed, must acclimate themselves to.

Obama cannot deliver the security Americans desire (and the same is true regarding the ISIS-fueled disorder in the Middle East). So he is open to a convenient line of attack from the GOPers: Americans remain at risk from economic dislocation at home (and depressed wages) and from foreign threats abroad. The world is an iffy place. Beheadings overseas, shootings at home, factory shutdowns—none of this is going to end soon. And the federal government's ability to eradicate these threats is limited. (How do you stop a lone wolf—or a lone couple—from going to a gun store and then launching an attack in a pubic place to advance jihadist extremism?) For Obama's political foes at home, it is easy to assert that any particular event—an ISIS gain of territory in Iraq, a terrorist attack in the United States, a glitch with Obamacare—discredits Obama's policies and his overall approach. So Obama has the heavy burden, especially as he tries to pass the White House to a Democratic successor, of defending progressive government at a moment when quick and permanent solutions to vexing problems here and abroad are hard to come by.

But rather than devote much of the speech to defending the past—that is, the Obama years—he declared, "I want to focus on our future."

In a buoyant speech, Obama observed the obvious: This is a "time of extraordinary change," and he counseled Americans not to wig out over the changes they encounter. He hailed American "optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery and innovation, our diversity and commitment to the rule of law." He didn't unveil a grocery list of new policies. He did reiterate those proposals he has already called for: a minimum-wage hike, immigration reform, college affordability programs, gun safety measures, criminal-justice reform, equal pay, and paid family leave. But he outlined four big questions the nation has to answer: how to give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and economic security, how to use technology to solve pressing problems (such as climate change), how to make the world safer (without the United States becoming the global policeman), and how to make the US political system more responsive to the public interest. He did not provide specifics across these fronts, though he did announce a moonshot project for cancer research (to be helmed by Vice President Joe Biden).

This was a speech about American confidence—a confidence that Obama said should be predicated on the progress of recent years. It was a direct retort to Trump talk. Don't fall for fear, he said: "Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn't deny Sputnik was up there. We didn't argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon." But how can our political system deliver on this? "Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise," Obama said, "or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us." Yet he once again declined to call out GOP obstructionism, observing, "It's one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There's no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office."

Obama also counseled Americans not to freak out about the troubling developments overseas, including terrorism and the spread of extremism. He noted, "As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence." He dared Congress to vote on authorizing US military action against ISIS.

In one of the most passionate moments of the speech, Obama criticized the anti-Muslim attacks of Trump and others:

That's why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn't a matter of political correctness. It's a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith. His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I stand tonight that "to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place." When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn't make us safer. That's not telling it like it is. It's just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.

And the president maintained that the United States is not as weak or at risk as GOP presidential fearmongers claim:

I told you earlier all the talk of America's economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that's the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead—they call us.

The message: Buck up, America. We're doing better than many other nations, and we have the opportunity to make great strides.

This was, in a way, a return to hope and change. Perhaps a more realistic (or world-weary) version of his 2008 pitch. He was aiming to spark the US spirit, not to draw clear lines. But at this stage in the game, it's unclear what a good speech—and this was a good speech—can or will accomplish.

In 2008, Obama's election seemed a turning point. The Republicans were routed. A new progressive era was at hand. But conservatives struck back. Hatred of Obama fueled the tea party revival and reshaped the GOP. And as Obama failed to keep the millions who voted for his brand of hope and change fully engaged in the political process, Republicans realized that were leading an army of resentment comprising foot soldiers who demanded Obama's head on the pike. (For most of them, this was a metaphorical urge.) The president underestimated the opposition at first, but he combated Republican revanchism by trying to set up a political narrative focused on choice: The nation's voters had to choose between his vision of government and that of the ever-more conservative Republican Party. Obama succeeded with this strategy in 2012. Yet the Obama years have not settled this fundamental clash for good.

With his final State of the Union, Obama, full of zeal and spirit, skillfully emphasized grand nonpolitical themes: optimism, unity, progress, and innovation. But whoever the Democratic nominee will be in 2016, he or she will have to continue the ideological ground war. In the past eight years, Obama won many battles, and the United States is in a better spot now than the day he moved into the White House. But this war of ideas is not done. It may never be. And if Obama wants to preserve his accomplishments and cement his legacy, he will have to stay engaged in that fight.