With a year left in his term, President Barack Obama spoke to the nation Tuesday night in his last State of the Union address. More somber than the Obama of 2008, and significantly grayer-haired, the president maintained his signature hope and optimism theme throughout, drawing a clear distinction between himself and Republican critics:
“All the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air,” he said. “So is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.” He added, “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.”
With little time left to enact major legislation, the Commander-in-Chief focused instead on his legacy and what is needed to keep American values strong. He talked about the importance of bipartisanship and regretted that he could not have brought members of Congress closer together. It was not for a lack of trying.
Almost three-quarters of his speech focused on politics. He defended his legacy and ran down a list of accomplishments, including bringing America back from the brink of depression, re-opening relations with Cuba, and aggressive action on climate control. The economy was a recurring theme:
“We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history,” the president noted. “More than 14 million new jobs, the strongest two years of job growth since the 1990s, an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever.”
The speech was toned down. Gun violence was mentioned only once, although he used executive orders to enforce tighter gun control just last week. He minced no words, however, criticizing GOP opponents:
“When the GOP’s candidates take the stage in South Carolina this Thursday for their next debate, they will offer up the same old failed policies.”
Without mentioning names, he called out Donald Trump for his stance against Muslims:
“As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”
Even South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was selected to give the Republican response to Obama’s address, supported the president’s opinion. She called on Americans to resist the temptation “to follow the siren call of the angriest voices.”
“No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome,” Haley said in a statement released ahead of the SOTU.
Like an employee on his way out, Obama used the speech to appeal to those who hired him, offering advice on how to make the next presidential term better. The president spoke directly to voters, saying divisive policies must be changed or we will risk losing American democracy. He called for an end to big money financing political campaigns:
“We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.”
Political gerrymandering, he said, has to go:
“I think we've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it.”
With seven years behind him, and his mind firmly on the future, President Obama vowed to keep working with Republicans on such issues as gun control, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform. Despite exhausting battles that have sometimes squashed his efforts at compromise, he seemed willing to keep extending his hand to political rivals.
If he succeeds on bringing together Democrats and Republicans to finally solve issues that they fight over, it could be one of his most important legacies.