President Obama gave his last State of the Union address on 12 January. To non-Americans unfamiliar with this speech, it is an annual tradition in which the president discusses how the United States is faring in front of a joint session of Congress. This address was established by the first president, George Washington, but was discontinued by third president Thomas Jefferson, who began the century-long tradition of sending an annual written address to Congress. President Woodrow Wilson reestablished the custom in the early 1900s, and the tradition has continued since.
Generally, presidents use the State of the Union address to reflect on their accomplishments and, more importantly, outline their policy platforms for the upcoming year. However, 2016 is the last year of Obama’s two terms and so he is considered to be a “lame duck” president now. While Obama can still accomplish much during his last year as president, primarily in the foreign policy arena, his address was more circumspect and reflected his position as a leader at the end of his tenure. As such, much of his speech was focused on his achievements over the past seven years.
Change we can believe in
When Obama ran for the presidency 2008, he offered a platform of hope and change, and the momentum of this positive messaging helped to elect him to his current office. However, a combative Congress held by the opposition party since 2010, not to mention the current candidates running for president, have often painted the Obama administration as weak. In the State of the Union address, Obama defended his legacy, arguing that his administration actually did accomplish much of the change it promised.
Obama focused on change in the beginning of his speech, noting that the world is in a transformative time. Obama seemed to be subtly arguing against the Republican candidates, particularly Donald Trump, who proffers retroactive slogans such as the need to return to former glory and “make America great again.” In contrast, Obama emphasised the future. Speaking of increased globalisation, the president asserted that “whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”
Obama then discussed the American contribution to the changing world under his administration, using the opportunity to take a victory lap and brag about his accomplishments. He praised the successes of the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare), and the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalising same-sex marriage. He also flouted the Republican candidates’ assertions that the American economy is weak, pointing out job creation under his administration and the success of the auto industry in 2015. Succinctly put: “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”
Looking towards the future
While this address did not offer many new policy proposals, it did give a broad outline as to what America can accomplish in 2016. Obama painted the truest enemies of the American people as fear and division, arguing that compromise and progress were needed for continuing American exceptionalism.
Obama announced an effort to cure cancer that will be spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his son to cancer in 2015. Obama also bluntly discussed the importance of tackling climate change, pointing a finger at some Republicans who deny its reality, claiming: “If anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it, you will be pretty lonely because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world.”
Obama also took a decidedly anti-Trump stance with regards to tolerance and civility. He echoed President Franklin Roosevelt’s entreaty to the American public to not be swayed by fear, encouraging people not to give into Islamophobia or racism—effectively insulting Trump’s rhetoric without actually mentioning his name. “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” he continued, saying that targeting of Muslims was a betrayal of American values, and would only further divide the country.
“The state of our Union is strong”
Towards the end of his speech, Obama acknowledged he was a dividing figure in American politics, musing that presidents such as Lincoln or Roosevelt may have had the leadership skills to better bridge this polarised political landscape. But despite this bit of melancholy bit of self-reflection, Obama still asserted that “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period,” citing national heroes such as the Wright brothers and Sally Ride, and discussing America’s power and military force on a global stage.
Ultimately, the 2016 State of the Union address struck a hopeful note, serving as a plea to the public to recognise the accomplishments of a president trying to show he has delivered on his promises of change.
The true test of whether or not the American people believe this pitch will be the 2016 election, in which voters will choose candidates who either say this country is weak, or agree it is as strong as President Obama asserted.
Featured Image Credit: Forbes