Barack Obama’s Huge Year Eight Challenge

The pre-presidential Obama could leave nearly everyone feeling affirmed and unaccused. Can he still? Tonight’s SOTU will give us a hint.

01.12.16 5:01 AM ET

Tonight, President Obama will give his final State of the Union speech. The nation’s first black president is widely expected to forgo a string of policy proposals and instead deliver a broad treatise before what could be his largest remaining television audience on the accomplishments of his administration and the goals he still thinks the country can realize. And he will likely address, in blunt, second-term Obama fashion, America’s seemingly never ending, uncivil war. 

Talking through the subtleties of Americans’ intersectional anxieties while leaving (nearly) everyone feeling affirmed and unaccused was the pre-presidential Barack Obama’s golden talent. Deploying it now, at the start of his final year and in the midst of both a full-on right wing rebellion and a presidential campaign, will be a monumental challenge.

Can the president make the moral case for immigration reform while addressing the demographic panic the extremists on the right are pushing, but that many run-of-the-mill Americans feel a smidgeon of, too? Can he call for a revival of racial tolerance while not lumping together regular folks who get irritated at having to “press one for English” with the Trump rally goons and social media trolls? And can he assuage average Americans’ nervousness about taking in Syrian refugees and simultaneously address the alarming surge in Islamophobia and religious intolerance in this country? If he can, the president will carry a working majority, however imperfect, into the coming ideological wars with the far right. If he can’t, it’s going to be a very long year.

Obama was elected at a historical breaking point of race, ideology, and economic haves and have-nots. Now, he has one more year to decide whether the New America he leads and symbolizes can and should find détente with the Old America, or simply try to vanquish its most pernicious generals and force their infuriated troops to face the future. 

On gun safety and immigration, the president has tried both approaches; first negotiating with the other side, then, after realizing that negotiation is futile in the face of almost religious gun worship and anti-government paranoia, and against the backdrop of pure demographic panic, turning to executive power, instead.

Democrats did much the same with health care, negotiating first and then using the power of their majority to force the game. The president will likely double down on Tuesday in touting the results: 16 million more Americans with health care, and no alternative on offer from those vowing and repeatedly voting to take it from them. 

Obama has presided over sweeping cultural advances, particularly in the rights of gay and lesbian Americans. The turnabout on these issues has been swift, including in the growing public sympathy for transgender peoples’ struggles for a dignified existence, new opportunities for women in the military, and in a much belated recognition that there is something deeply wrong with the way our police departments function in communities of color. 

But building on those victories depends heavily on Democrats maintaining the White House. And the growing ferocity and tenacity of the forces that launched the Lunch Pail Revolution have shown no signs of backing down.

In fact, far from being silenced by the bullying jackboot of liberal thought police, the far right’s voices have been heard loud and clear for decades. The irony of their current rage is that for the last 20 years, whether on tax cuts for the rich, curbing public assistance to the poor, or rolling back the voting rights advances of the 1960s, they’ve largely gotten their way. 

Even at its most outrageous early moments, the Tea Party movement was treated to sober and at times breathless media coverage, to the point of being invited to co-host a presidential debate. Beltway solicitude toward the right has in fact become so pervasive that the mainstream press cannot bring itself to describe an armed gang occupying federal property in Oregon, recording martyrdom videos and declaring they are willing to die to force the federal government to hand over public lands to whomever they designate, as anything more than “protesters.” This as Black Lives Matter activists are publicly denounced as “terrorists” for their acts of unarmed protest against the rampant use of deadly force against men, women, and 12-year-old boys. Indeed, on matters of race and policing, some 40 years of cultural norms have been shattered when it comes to the open denigration of people of color, up to and including the president of the United States.

Far from being silenced, the far right has never seemed more empowered. Conservatives have created a climate in which Republican governors cannot accept federal money to cover their own poor, even with a 100 percent federal match under Medicaid, leaving more than 4 million red state citizens uncovered. They have driven their congressional representatives to mount useless vote after useless vote to try to strip away the health-care law for everyone, even to the point of shutting down the federal government. A year ago, backed by a media infrastructure far more powerful than any counterpart on the left, some of the same people now occupying federal land in Oregon got away with shooing off federal agents and making the Bureau of Land Management walk away from $1 million in overdue land grazing fees by pointing assault rifles at federal agents. And in just the past year, the far right staged a takeover of one of the country’s two major political parties, deposed the House majority leader and nearly took down the speaker before he scurried away, shielded by the visiting pope. 

Lately, though, the working-class voters who produced these results have figured out that the reward for their zeal and loyalty has been meager in terms of their own job prospects and pocketbooks. And they’re in full-on rebellion, against their party’s donor class, against Obama, and seemingly, against change itself.

Feeding this group of Americans’ rage with birtherism and nativism and vows to undo every single thing Obama has done, build a wall to keep out Mexican migrants, exile every Muslim from the country, and talk so tough from the White House that nations tremble in the shadow of our rhetorical greatness may be poor substitutes for creating broad prosperity and a sense of cultural respect, but it’s what the right’s most talented and shameless demagogues have to offer right now.

It’s not clear what Obama, in his presidency’s final year, and presiding over a House so deeply divided against itself, could offer that would convince these angriest Americans to trade in their anger for hope. And it’s not clear whether trying to draw them away from the demagogues would help him reach the less furious majority who are largely ignored outside the primary season circus tent. But Obama being Obama, it’s highly likely he’s going to try.