President Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot this November, but his final State of the Union address had all the hallmarks of an election-year stemwinder meant to keep his party in power.
In true Obama fashion, it was a call for hope over fear. He argued against the gloom dominating Republican campaign rhetoric. He called for national unity against Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s attacks on Muslims and immigrants. He issued an appeal for economic fairness that would ground the election on terrain favorable to Democrats.
If it sounded familiar, that’s because it contained echoes of the optimistic tone and unifying vision of the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that thrust Obama onto the national stage.
Yet in that way, it also was a stark reminder as he prepared to exit the stage of how the promise of Obama’s arrival in 2008 fell short. Then, he promised unity. Instead, he got seven years of bitter partisan polarization.
Obama conceded it is “one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
Iran’s detention of 10 U.S. sailors hours before the speech provided a disquieting note and a reminder of public anxiety over terrorism and threats abroad that all the presidential candidates including Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders must navigate.
Obama didn’t mention the sailors, and Republicans attacked, saying Obama has made the U.S. weaker in the world.
“Tonight’s speech was less a State of the Union and more a state of denial,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who along with Trump is leading the Republican field, said on Twitter. “We need a president who will defeat radical Islamic terrorism.”
There’s a reason Republican arguments are sticking. Despite his statement that the U.S. has ‘the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” Obama was addressing a public worried over stagnant middle-class wages as well as terrorism. Sixty-five percent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to a CBS-New York Times poll taken Jan. 7-10.
Still, Obama’s valedictory report on the nation provided him a chance to brag. The auto industry “just had its best year ever,” he reminded Americans. “Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either.”
The U.S has gone from losing jobs at a rate of 800,000 a month when he took office after a financial crash to posting the biggest back-to-back annual employment gains in 2014 and 2015 since the boom years of the 1990s. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index more than doubled and the jobless rate of 5 percent is close to what many economists consider full employment.
“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” he said in one of many pointed, if indirect, references to the rhetoric of the Republican presidential campaign field.
Defining the administration’s economic record is critical to the prospects of a Democratic nominee who will inevitably bear political responsibility for Obama’s time in office. While Clinton has insisted that she’s not running for Obama’s third term, she tweeted Tuesday night that “America is better because of @POTUS’ leadership. Proud to call him my friend. Let’s build on his progress.”
The address gave Obama a marquee moment to promote a Democratic narrative that has largely been crowded out of news coverage during a political season in which attention has focused on the more competitive Republican primary and the provocative rhetoric of the front-running GOP candidates, primarily Trump and Cruz.
Trump’s responded on Twitter as well with one of his favorite attack lines, calling Obama’s address “really boring, slow, lethargic.”
Trump was the target as well of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who delivered the Republican response to Obama’s speech. In choosing Haley, Republicans put forward an Indian-American to portray the party as ethnically diverse and empowering to women. While she was critical of Obama, Haley warned that, “during anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”
The White House did its best to make maximum use of the moment, inviting NBC’s Today show to broadcast from the White House on the morning of the speech and promoting the address through social media avenues such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Medium.
Obama celebrated “a time of extraordinary change,” adding, “It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”
His identification of preserving a “fair shot” for all Americans in a rapidly changing economy as a central challenge in the years ahead reprises the theme of his re-election campaign Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
“Working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense,” Obama said. “In this new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less.”
It is also plays to the Democratic party’s natural advantage. Polls regularly show voters by large margins trust Democrats more than Republicans to look after people like themselves.
For all the lofty rhetoric, Obama wasn’t above taking potshots belittling Republicans, though he didn’t identify any of his targets by name.
“When the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” Obama said, clearly referring to Republican candidates’ denial of climate change science.
In a barely veiled reference to Trump and Cruz, Obama said the answer to threats in the world “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.”