Obama's Last State Of The Union Address Set The Stage For His 2016 Victory Lap
It will be some time before historians reach a consensus on the success of Barack Obama's presidency. Obama himself, however, seems to have already come to a conclusion: He thinks he did a pretty good job. It was clear Tuesday that Obama's last State of the Union Address was his victory lap, and he used the occasion to remind everyone of just how much he has accomplished during his time in office. And he looked like he had a fun time doing so.
The president did acknowledge the challenges still facing America; things like fighting climate change, preserving Social Security, and making college affordable. But by and large, this speech read like a highlight reel of the Obama administration. He made his feelings on the matter plain early on, when he used a remark about America's "unique strengths as a nation" to segue into his own achievements as president:
It’s that spirit that made the progress of these past seven years possible. It’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. It’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector; how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans, and how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.
Note the phrase "the progress of these past seven years." Obama then asserted that America "has the strongest, most durable economy in the world" and cited several statistics to back that up. He admitted that American workers have felt "squeezed" and that "more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top," but he chalked this up to an "economy [that] has been changing in profound ways," not an economy that's in decline. What's more, these changes started "long before the Great Recession hit." In other words, Obama's policies have been great for the economy, and if the economy isn't doing so hot in certain ways, well, those things aren't his fault.
The president then discussed the results of his energy initiatives — "gas under two bucks a gallon ain't bad" — before moving on to foreign policy. Obviously, it's a bit tougher for Obama to be so optimistic in this arena, given the rise of ISIS over the past year and the recent spate of high-profile terror attacks. And so, in a remarkable break with his predecessor, Obama simply rejected the notion that terrorism poses an existential threat to the U.S.:
As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. 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.
You can agree or disagree with that, but it's unquestionably a bold argument for a president — or any elected official in America — to make. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, the U.S. government has more or less accepted at face value the idea that terrorism is The Thing We Should Fear the Most, and has devoted unfathomable resources to fighting it as a result. Obama looked to change this prevailing sentiment, and in doing so, ended up defending his own performance. After all, if it's been seven years and the world isn't really on fire, he couldn't have been that bad of a president, right?
Rather than fret about terrorism, Obama focused on what he's done right in the foreign arena: reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, containing the Ebola outbreak in Africa, passing the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, and, most notably, inking a nuclear deal with Iran. The timing of that last part was a bit awkward, given that the Iranian military took 10 U.S. sailors into custody earlier Tuesday, but Obama didn't mention that. Instead, he claimed that the nuclear deal "avoided another war," implicitly giving himself and his administration credit for maintaining world peace.
Obama did sort of almost admit to fault during one point later the speech, when he addressed the growing partisan divide in American politics:
It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
And yet, just moments later, he absolved himself of blame:
But, my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task — or any president’s — alone. There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber who would like to see more cooperation, a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the demands of getting elected. I know; you’ve told me. And if we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves.
This was a veiled jab at pundits who've blame Obama's alleged lack of "leadership" for the acrimony he's faced from Republicans, but he is right about one thing. The Republican leader of the Senate openly stated in 2010 that the GOP's top priority was ensuring Obama's defeat in the 2012 election. If that's where your opponents are coming from, then it's going to be pretty hard to get two parties to have a kumbaya moment.
While Obama surely has some disappointments with how the past seven years went, his last State of the Union speech made it very clear that, by and large, he's proud of his presidency. I happen to think he has good reason to be proud, but of course, it will be a long while before his legacy is written. Still, Obama might as well brag about his accomplishments if he truly feels that he left the country in better shape than when he inherited it. That, after all, is what the State of the Union Address is for.