President Obama delivered a mostly swaggering stemwinder of a speech for his valedictory State of the Union address on Tuesday, seizing one of his last big moments at centerstage to draw some sharp contrasts with Republicans in the room and those beyond it hoping to replace him next year.
Obama acknowledged at the outset that the time and will to accomplish priorities remaining on his domestic agenda — primarily immigration reform, gun control, raising the minimum wage, and the smaller-bore items that typically fill out such an address — are running short, as attention shifts to the presidential trail. So, instead, he offered a frank and, at points, confrontational assessment of the debates exacerbating the partisan divide and shaping up to organize an election that will help determine his legacy.
Without naming names, Obama all but called out those Republican presidential contenders, billionaire developer Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the main, who are whipping up conservative base voters with demagogic appeals. Those candidates are building their candidacies on the premise that the country is a mess and Washington is far too broken to fix it — a view largely shared by the public, a majority of whom have held consistently that conditions are growing worse rather than the other way around.
On the contrary, Obama insisted on Tuesday, “anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction” — a line that called to mind Trump’s slogan-cum-pledge to “make America great again” and his stump speech refrain that we “don’t win anymore.”
Later, Obama obliquely criticized the call by many GOP candidates to stop admitting Syrian refugees in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, a position Trump expanded to include all Muslims. “When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn't make us safer,” he said. “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.”
That section of the speech earned a rare display of approval from newly installed House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who otherwise maintained an impressive poker face over the president’s left shoulder. Ryan last month gave himself a dispensation from his policy of avoiding comment on the presidential race to denounce Trump’s call for a Muslim ban.
But elsewhere, Obama leaned into the gulf separating the two parties on the most basic questions of governance, saying Americans “have a choice to make.” While he said he believes in a “thriving private sector” as the lifeblood of the economy and agrees some regulations need to be dialed down, he held that “after years now of record corporate profits, working families won't get more opportunity or bigger paychecks just by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense.” Middle class families, he added, “are not going to feel more secure because we let 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 principle reason wages haven't gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns.”
Those were some of the sharpest words the president has used recently to describe the imbalance between powerful interests and workers, a theme he used heavily in his 2012 reelection race.
But in the last section of his speech, Obama dropped the implicitly partisan frame entirely to close on a note of humility— and a direct expression of regret — rare for the president generally and rare for the event. He called for citizens and elected leaders alike to recommit to healing a broken democratic process, an issue that animated his first campaign and that, by his own acknowledgement, actually got worse over his presidency. “It's one of the few regrets of my presidency,” he said. “I have 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 advocated overhauling the method for Congressional redistricting, reforming the campaign finance system, and enhancing voting rights — process tweaks that, no matter how critical, don’t move voters in big elections. Obama acknowledged the difficulty of making progress on these fronts — “our brand of democracy is hard,” he said — but suggested he could take up the fight in his post-presidency, promising that “a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I'll be right there with you as a citizen.”
As it turns out, Obama himself is not a great fan of the State of the Union, viewing the tradition as outmoded and ineffective. And he isn’t wrong, with the data showing the speech rarely makes an impact on public opinion. In that context, his final stab at it makes more sense as a trial run for a new stump speech he’ll be tooling up in the fall as he hits the trail for Democrats, including the one aiming to replace him.