Assistant Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger shares his observations of President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address, delivered January 12, 2016.
The president’s final State of the Union (SOTU) address dispensed with the rhetorical formula we’ve come to expect from these occasions. There was no laundry list of policy proposals; nor did we hear a litany of personal stories drawn from the guests seated in the gallery, each with a personal story that neatly ties in with the president’s political message. This SOTU, the president explained, would be different: it would be about “our future.”
But, really, this SOTU was very much about the past — the very recent past. Perhaps Obama is simply unaccustomed to his present position — standing as he is on the sidelines of a presidential contest. His presidency has been under attack by a host of Republican presidential candidates, and Obama took it upon himself to set the record (as he sees it) straight. This primary season has, indeed, been long on hyperbolic critiques of “his” economy, of his agenda on climate change, of Obamacare, and of his alleged weakness as a commander-in-chief. The president returned fire, offering a series of thinly veiled rebuttals to charges of domestic policy failure and apocalyptic claims of national decline advanced by the likes of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
His tone was, at times, defensive as he sought to reassure an anxious public that his efforts and accomplishments are and have been consonant with Americans’ most cherished values: America has changed and is changing, but has not “lost itself,” nor will it. Here’s what he said about the Affordable Care Act: “Nearly 18 million have gained coverage so far. . . . And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law.” On the economy: “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.” On the military and American strength in the world: “all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker” is “political hot air. . . . The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.”
Implicit here is a critique of the partisan animus that he’s been unable to calm, conciliate or avoid. He defended his record, but his tone conveyed a corollary message of frustration with the kind of political suspicion that has been directed at his administration since his first days in office. The account he offered of his policy accomplishments might be rephrased as a series of rhetorical questions: “We expanded access to healthcare and created millions of new jobs, so why all the talk of ‘socialism’? We’re on the offensive against our terrorist adversaries and our military is the envy of the world, so why all the hysteria about American ‘weakness’?”
Defensive though he was, Obama was also optimistic, or at least offered a spirited show of optimism, presumably to draw a contrast between himself and the field of Republican presidential candidates. This contrast was more sharply and effectively drawn, however, when he directed his ire at the ugly Islamophobia that has cropped up among the Republican ranks. Obama took on a more strident demeanor as he delivered this message. “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. 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.” There was no hint of defensiveness in his voice. He easily assumed the moral high ground as he chastised Republican contenders who seek electoral advantage by preying upon popular prejudices.
Political attention is now shifting to Hillary, Bernie and the Republican presidential field, and away from Obama and his administration. Yet Obama’s accomplishments remain a central bone of partisan contention, and the president, understandably, doesn’t want to rely on the Democratic nominee to defend his record. Obama used this final State of the Union Address to define his legacy on his own terms, before he loses the country’s attention to the rival campaigns that will take center stage in the months to come.