On Tuesday night at 9 PM, President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address, kicking off his farewell tour as the nation's leader before he and Michelle retire to take naps and entertain celebrities in their swanky Rancho Mirage mansion. If you've caught any of the last six States of the Union Obama has given during his administration, you know it's one of the least entertaining events in American politics—a mostly symbolic ritual in which the president talks up his accomplishments, and lays out dreamy, never-to-be-realized plans to make the country smarter, cleaner, and healthier, pausing every few moments for rote applause breaks.
For Obama's final speech, though, the White House is promising something "non-traditional." While that makes it sound like he'll be marrying gay couples or come out in a Kanye-esque leather skirt, what the administration is teasing is likely that the president is going to focus entirely on what his team has done right over the last seven years. In that sense, the speech is sort of a first draft of Obama's legacy—or, in the language of White House spin, his "vision for America"—before Donald Trump takes office and starts white-washing textbooks.
"We feel like we can win this future, we feel very optimistic about the future," Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, told NBC's Chuck Todd Sunday. "That's a big difference between us and what's going on in this public debate right now and that's what you'll hear about on Tuesday."
In other words, the State of the Union is strong, same as usual (presidents aren't usually in the practice of badmouthing the country they run). According to White House previews of the speech, disseminated across the entire spectrum of social media platforms, the president will highlight his accomplishments in five categories—the economy, climate, foreign policy, healthcare, and social change—reminding the country that, since he took office, the economy has rebounded, the war in Iraq (if not the one in Afghanistan) has ended, the US has finally acknowledged the reality of climate change—and even signed a treaty about it—and millions of Americans have gained access to health insurance, cheap Asian goods, and Cuban cigars.
To hammer the point home, the Obamas will fill the seats tonight with totems of the president's progressive principles and accomplishments. Faced with the prospect of a night with Obama's Republican rivals, the First Couple will bring their own party to Capitol Hill, with a guest list that includes a Syrian refugee, a Mexican immigrant, a community college student, and the guy who brought down same-sex marriage bans in the Supreme Court. The only empty seat is meant to represent the victims of American gun violence.
People who aren't Obama speechwriters will have various problems with such a rosy reading of his presidency. For one thing, among all of the successes listed on the White House SOTU website, only one—the Affordable Care Act—can be counted as a true legislative accomplishment, and to say that it has not been popular would be a laughable understatement. The rest have mostly been cobbled together through a combination of bureaucratic directives, international agreements, and court battles, meaning that in many cases, Obama's legacy could be quickly erased by whoever takes control of the executive branch next year. Blame a deadlocked Congress if you like, but on many of the subjects that Obama plans to highlight—immigration reform, gun control, and climate change, to name just a few—the administration hasn't succeeded in pushing through much in the way of reforms.
Still, you'd have to be a pretty stubborn partisan not to admit that the country is in better shape now than it was in the twilight of the George W. Bush years. Back then, the world was on the precipice of economic ruin and the US was stuck in two failed wars. Today, by most measures, the US is doing pretty well. The latest jobs report found the country had added 292,000 jobs heading into the end of 2015, with the unemployment rate holding steady at 5 percent. As Politico's Michael Grunwald wrote in his own roundup of the state of the union last week (and Democratic National Committee spokesman Luis Miranda gleefully reposted on Medium ), "Everything is (Even More) Awesome!...America is already great, and it's getting greater":
Unemployment has dropped from 10 percent during the worst of the Great Recession to 5 percent today, thanks to a record 69 consecutive months of private-sector employment growth that has produced 13.7 million new jobs. The past two years have been the best two years for job creation in the 21st century. After a near-death experience during the financial meltdown of 2008, the U.S. auto industry enjoyed record sales in 2015. The housing market has also rebounded from the crisis, and after-tax corporate profits are at an all-time high. It can sound partisan to mention those facts when a Democrat is in the White House, but they're facts...
...In non-economic news, despite a year of furor over mass shootings and urban unrest, crime in big cities dropped about 5 percent in 2015, and has been cut in half since 1990. The teen birth rate is down more than 60 percent since 1990 , and that's not because of increasing abortions, because they've fallen by more than a third. U.S. oil imports are at their lowest level in nearly three decades, while wind generation is up more than threefold and solar generation is up 25-fold since 2008. Carbon emissions have dropped 10 percent from 2005 levels. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, with the most striking gains for minorities and the poor. The financial sector is much safer, with much more capital to absorb banking losses, much less of the risky overnight funding that fuels panics, and much broader regulation of Wall Street institutions that once operated in the shadows. And despite all the rhetoric about border crises and wall-building, America's population of undocumented immigrants has remained stable for the past five years.
As Obama takes this final victory lap, Republicans will undoubtedly accuse the president of running a third campaign, dog-whistling down the wind tunnels of the right-wing blogosphere that martial law and an Obama dictatorship are imminent. They too will have a point, at least when it comes to the campaign part. The real validation of Obama's legacy will be the election of a Democrat—namely his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—as his successor. And in that sense, tonight's State of the Union is really a campaign speech, aimed at making sure Obama's America—the black, Latino, Asian, and youth voters who gave the president such large margins in the last two presidential elections—remain committed Democrats, and vote for whichever elderly, white career politician the party nominates in 2016.
This last task has taken on a new urgency against the backdrop of a country that has demonstrably lost its mind. American voters have turned conventional wisdom and political logic upside down in the lead up to the 2016 primary, blowing open the doors of the proverbial smoke-filled backrooms and letting loose a parade of White Supremacists and Socialists, and one slightly addled neurosurgeon, across the frozen plains of Iowa and New Hampshire. The paranoia that has long been an undercurrent in American politics is now driving the presidential election, with the nation's pervasive fears propelling the clown car of candidates toward next month's primary votes.
During his first presidential campaign, in 2008, Barack Obama won office partially campaigning on the hopeful idea that he would be able to unite a bitterly divided nation. These days, anyone proposing that sort of bullshit would get laughed out of the country. On issues like—well, pretty much everything except for maybe legal weed—the US remains deeply divided, with Republicans in open revolt against what they see as the president's attempts to apologize for America and eliminate their right to bear firearms.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey revealed that a full 83 percent of Americans believe that a major terrorist attack is imminent, underscoring a broad distrust in the Obama administration's handling of national security threats. Even young people—the mainstay of Obama's support base—are feeling the fear: According to a poll released by Harvard's Institute of Politics last month, nearly half of millennials—voters between the ages of 18 and 29—believe the American Dream is dead.
In the meantime, distrust in government and public officials is at record lows, with just 1 in 5 Americans saying that they trust the government "all or most of the time," according to the most recent numbers from Pew Research Center. That same Pew survey found that a full three quarters of Americans believe that public officials put their own interests ahead of their constituents.
With this in mind, Obama's speech will be the rhetorical equivalent of shaking a hysterical lunatic and shouting, "Don't you see?! Everything is fine! We're all OK!" which, as Rachel Bloom can tell you, is not an effective way to deal with a crazy person.
The president will no doubt do a good job coolly and carefully going through the list of ways that America is on the right track, and his baritone will be as pleasing as it always is, and the applause will be as plentiful as ever. But after it's over, there are going to be a whole lot of Americans on both the right and the left who are left with the unnerving feeling that the state of the union is not quite right.
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Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.