What We Learned from Obama's Last State of the Union
President Barack Obama has been wishing for a "better politics" for years, but on Tuesday he seemed to admit that it's on the voters to try to make his hope-and-change vision happen.
Tuesday night, when Donald Trump called President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech "boring, slow, lethargic—very hard to watch," you had to wonder, has he ever seen a SOTU address before? They're all like that: rote recitations of policy wish lists coupled with some sunny patriotism and broken up by joyless applause breaks from the assembled members of Congress.
If the speech was "non-traditional" in any way, as the White House said it would be, it came from Obama's focus on the future—not just the last drips and drabs of his term, but the broader narrative arc of America. He broke that down into four topics over the course of his hour-plus address: the economy, technology, national security, and politics.
The substance of all this was unsurprising. Obama touched on his achievements in growing the economy and using diplomacy effectively while emphasizing the need to fight income inequality, climate change, and cancer. He also made an appeal to common decency that doubled as a shot at Trump and other Islamophobes: "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."
The line marked a pivot into the most interesting part of Obama's speech, where he pleaded with the country to "fix our politics." Bringing the national debate to a place of decency and substance and seriousness has been a common theme for Obama for years, but what stood out was that this time, it came off as slightly more desperate.
"My fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen," he pleaded. "To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us."
If there was anything noteworthy about this SOTU address, it was that it revealed how Obama's politics of hope have shifted over the years. There are a lot of reasons he became president—an incredibly organized campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2008, the inability of Republicans to win national elections—but what made him a viable White House occupant in the first place was that he made people feel good and confident about America. His 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention is still powerful and personal stuff, and it reached a crescendo when he was preaching togetherness:
"Now, even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us: the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers, who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America, there is the United States of America."
He pushed on through mounting cheers:
"The pundits—the pundits—like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states, red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats, but I've got news for them too: We worship an awesome god in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states, and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
Twelve years and two long presidential campaigns later, it would be unfair to say that Obama has gotten more cynical, but he's definitely changed his expectations. He's no longer talking about unifying the country—which is fractured not just by geography but by Facebook feeds and warring cable news channels—but about getting people to merely agree on a few basic first principles.
"Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn't work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic," he announced last night. "Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention."
This is coming from a man who knows extreme voices. The anti-Obama rhetoric has been so hysterical that at one point a celebrity reality TV show host was leading a bunch of conservatives in openly questioning whether he had faked his birth certificate—that reality TV show host, of course, is now the leading Republican candidate for president.
Obama's felt this partisan division in the policy arena, too. The Affordable Care Act will go down as his signature domestic accomplishment, a piece of legislation so linked to him that it's been nicknamed "Obamacare." Republicans, of course, continue to hate the law with a passion, which makes it easy to forget that the health care reform plan was originally intended as a compromise some members of the GOP could get behind, a market-based reform that required people to buy private insurance rather than an attempt to put health care in the hands of the government, as left-wingers like Bernie Sanders would prefer.
That was back when Obama's team thought they could work with moderate Republicans. Problem was, if those hypothetical moderate Republican congresspeople signed on to anything the Democrats proposed they risked being torn to shreds by conservative media outlets and challenged in primaries. There were compromises made on the health care bill, but they were with conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats rather than the GOP; in the end the bill passed without a single Republican vote.
Later, in the wake of the 2013 Sandy Hook shooting, the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, which would have required background checks on gun purchases, died a similarly partisan death in the Senate, though it was proposed by a Democrat and a Republican. "It came down to politics—the worry that that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections," Obama said at the time. "All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington."
It's not surprising Obama's not in the compromise business anymore. Earlier this month he issued a series of executive actions that would expand background checks without going through Congress, and his chief of staff has promised more "audacious executive action."
In last night's State of the Union, Obama promised to try harder to bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals. But what do you do when every move you make just widens the gap and convinces a sizable portion of the country that you are some kind of dictator? If you believe that's the only way you can govern, you push through your proposals anyway, regardless of Congress, and let the courts sort it out.
That's a long way from the vision that 2004 Obama gave us of the melting-pot country he'd like to see. But as Donald Rumsfeld once said, you go to war with the America you have, and it just so happens that America is a mess. It's not on Obama to wave a wand and get Republicans and Democrats to hold hands across the aisle—it's always been a project that would have to involve multiple levels of reforms and changes in attitude. It has to be easier to vote—and more people have to be interested in voting—gerrymandering needs to be less blatant, campaign finance rules probably need to shift. If no one can quite see a realistic path to getting that done, well, that's part of the problem.
"Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you," Obama said last night. "That's what's meant by a government of, by, and for the people."
He left unspoken an inconvenient truth: Those people need to get it the fuck together.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.