President Obama's State of the Union Dismisses GOP 'Hot Air' and Makes the Case for the Future

Election '16

In his final and most powerful State of the Union speech, President Obama swept away the chorus of Republican naysayers seeking 2016 presidential nomination by reminding Americans that the country is far stronger than these detractors say it is, and that the nation is well-positioned to confront current and future challenges on domestic and global fronts.  

“I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air,” said Obama, in one of the more direct references to the 2016 campaign. “So is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.”

Obama’s criticisms of his GOP critics went deeper, however, as he repeatedly said their rhetoric of fear and politics of exclusion were mired in the past’s failures and did not bode well for facing the future.  

“America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights,” he said. “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. And each time, we overcame those fears.”

While Obama punctuated his narrative thread by citing his top accomplishments—recovering from “the worst economic crisis in generations,” reforming “our health care system,” reinventing “our energy sector,” delivering “more care and benefits to our troops and veterans,” and securing “the freedom in every state to marry the person we love”—his larger point was progress as a country is not a given, but comes from the most hopeful and inclusive American cultural and political traditions.

“Such progress is not inevitable. It is the result of choices we make together,” he said, obliquely referring to the exclusionary rants of 2016 GOP frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. “And we face such choices right now. Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation and turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”

The speech was promoted by the White House staff as a different kind of State of the Union, one in which the president would strike an optimistic tone and possibly define and defend his legacy. Numerous press accounts previewed it as a likely effort to showcase a president struggling to remain relevant in his sunset year. However, those frames proved to be much smaller than the speech's actual scope or its likely significance.

The speech didn’t do what most State of the Unions do, which is contain a laundry list of legislative actions that virtually every interest group in the president’s party would like to see enacted. Most of those, needless to say, never go anywhere. Instead, Obama gave an intelligent and emotional speech that may be seen as among his best in his presidency for articulating the big picture on many topics and his vision for American leadership.

The address was divided into four sections, which he said defined the challenges facing the government and citizenry into the foreseeable future, no matter which party was in power: 1) how to give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy; 2) how to make technology work for us, not against us, as exemplified by climate change; 3) how to keep Americans safe and still lead the world without becoming its policeman; and 4) how to make our politics reflect the best in people, not the worst.

While Obama said the last topic might be the most important—he called for sweeping pro-democracy reforms—his lengthy explanation of his decisions surrounding the unilateral use of military force abroad (when going after individuals and groups who have harmed Americans) and diplomacy (when America is expected to show global leadership) may have been his clearest yet.

Obama said his Republican critics were doing a great disservice to Americans by overstating the threats posed by groups like the Islamic State while naïvely feeding its propaganda and recruiting efforts.

“Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” he said. “Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, nor do we need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions. We just need to call them what they are—killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.”

Obama stressed that American leadership came not just from military might, but by showing our country could be a moral force for good—which was not evident in the international community after George W. Bush’s war of choice and invasion of Iraq.

“American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world, except when we kill terrorists, or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling,” he said. “Leadership means a wise application of military power and rallying the world behind causes that are right. It means seeing our foreign assistance as part of our national security, not as charity. When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change—that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our children.”

Obama said the same strategy has to be used at home to help Americans adjust to dislocations caused by the uneven economic recovery. It was not sufficient for job growth to return for the longest period since the 1990s, he said, because most working Americans—especially people in their 40s and 50s who lack the academic credentials and personal finances to start new careers—are facing real fears about their future and senior years.

“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” he said. “What is true—and the reason that a lot of Americans feel anxious—is that the economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit and haven’t let up. Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated. Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.”

What that means, Obama said, is that government has to help people to transition when their lives are filled with more change than they may have expected. He said he would push for greater access to education, higher wages, better unemployment insurance, and cutting college costs. He pointed out how Obamacare has helped 18 million people—because their health coverage is no longer job-based. He also challenged the Congress to support his efforts to finally find a cure for cancer and announced that Vice President Joe Biden would lead that effort.

Obama acknowledged that he did not expect Republicans to share his remedies, but that may have been the larger point of his speech. While he will be criticized by the GOP with predictable asides and while many liberal groups will point out his inaction on items he now touts, like campaign finance reform, the overall arc of his speech was to remind Americans about the real issues and choices facing the country in the years to come.

“The future we want—opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids—all that is within our reach,” he said. “But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

Pundits will surely note that Obama began his presidency with the same post-partisan pledge. After seven years, Obama said that he alone could not change the political culture or system. That will only come when the American public demands such change. But Obama also said he has not given up trying, even if it seems like an endlessly hard task.

“It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible and politics is hopeless and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future,” he said. “We can’t afford to go down that path.”

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