When President Obama delivered his last State of the Union address Tuesday evening, there was an implicit sense that he had given up working with Congress in his final year in office—and instead was trying to shape the nature of the 2016 presidential race with obvious jabs at Republican contenders Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie.
Obama’s message was one that was built for optimism, in contrast to the doom and gloom of Trump and Co. “The country we love [is] clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic,” the president concluded his speech. “A year from now, when I no longer hold office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen—inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness.”
Seemingly exasperated by two terms in office, Obama didn’t propose any large legislative initiatives that would reshape American life. Instead, he ticked off a couple things that bipartisan support might be built on—prescription drug addiction and criminal justice reform—and left it at that.
The president spent a large section of his State of the Union speech pushing back at the Republican field that is jockeying to replace him in the White House in just over a year.
“I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa,” the president quipped near the start of his speech, as presidential contenders and temporary Iowans Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders looked on from the floor of the House of Representatives.
In an obvious reference to businessman Trump, Obama compared him to demagogues of the past.
“Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control,” Obama said, exhorting the American public to see “how [we can] make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst.”
He also took a swipe at Cruz, who despite being a senator was not in attendance Tuesday evening. The Texas Republican had suggested that he was open to carpet-bombing ISIS-controlled areas, despite the collateral damage such a concentrated barrage of weaponry might yield.
“Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage,” Obama said Tuesday evening.
In the wake of Republican-led proposals to bar Iraqi and Syrian refugees from the United States—and Trump’s proposal for a ban of Muslims as a whole—the president said that these policies have a real world effect on American 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,” Obama said, in a section where even the stoic House Republican Speaker Paul Ryan subtlely clapped.
Rep. Andre Carson, himself a Muslim, clapped vigorously when the president noted that extremist groups like ISIS don’t represent the religion of Islam.
And in an apparent reference to Gov. Christie’s campaign slogan, he added, “that’s not ‘telling it like it is’—it’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world.” Christie had his own experience with kids two months ago when he said he supported barring refugee children from the U.S.: “I don’t think orphans under 5… should be admitted into the United States at this point,” the governor said then.
Obama had come to office running on the theme of hope and change—his soaring rhetoric inspired many of his supporters to back him over Hillary Clinton, and then to beat John McCain in the general election. After seven years, the president tried to return to this theme, echoing his victory speech on that election night in 2008, urging the public see themselves “not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; nor as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed.”
But what appeared Tuesday evening was a humbled Obama, who acknowledged that “rancor and suspicion” had worsened during his time in office—rather than the healing that the president had come to the White House seeking. The president even suggested that other presidents, such as FDR or Lincoln, might have done to bridge this gap if they had been given the opportunity.
“Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention,” Obama told the assembled crowd of Supreme Court justices, military leaders, and political figures. “Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us.”
The president pledged to continue this work, to bridge the gap between the divided partisan tribes. But as he delivered his final State of the Union address, it was clear that he had been stymied, and that he had failed.
Near the start of the speech, a Democratic congressman tried to rally his fellow members to shout, ‘fired up, ready to go!’—a slogan from the president’s first presidential campaign. But it died out quickly, a sign of the times.