President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address was different, in a good way. It matched the moment in this election year – an impassioned defense of his vision for America’s future and a powerful rebuke to Donald Trump’s dark politics of fear.
While the president never mentioned Trump by name Tuesday night, he delivered a point-by-point rebuttal of Trump’s deplorable campaign. America has “the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” Obama said. America is still the most powerful nation on earth with a military second to none. “It’s not even close,” he said.
That may be a tad boastful, but the president is surely right that America’s strength also lies in our values – and that what Trump is saying about immigrants and Muslims is un-American. Obama is also right that America, at its core, is an optimistic nation, in contrast to Trump’s daily drumbeat of decline.
“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people?” Obama asked. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for, in the incredible things that we can do together?”
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The Democratic presidential nominee, whoever it is, could use some of Obama’s eloquence.
Obama did not focus on a laundry list of specific proposals, but then he’s unlikely to get much through the Republican Congress this year. If there were any doubt, you just had to watch new House Speaker Paul Ryan seated behind him, who did much more smirking than clapping in response to anything the president said.
The president did mention some important priorities in passing: curbing the heroin epidemic, reforming the criminal justice system, tackling gun violence, closing the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, lifting the trade embargo on Cuba and winning approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, among them. He also endorsed the idea of independent commissions, not politicians, drawing congressional districts. If that came to pass, it would be another positive California export to the rest of the country.
As he defended his record, there were a few awkward moments. Obama stuck to the script to quickly promote his administration’s deal with Iran to curb its nuclear weapons program, but didn’t mention that Iran had just detained two U.S. boats and 10 service members. (They were released Wednesday.)
For a change, Obama did admit personal failure. One of the “few regrets” of his presidency, he said, is “that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
In the Republican response, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina urged her party to accept its responsibility for our broken government. “We as Republicans need to own that truth,” she said. If both parties share the blame, maybe that’s a first step to progress.
Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, also urged Americans to continue welcoming lawful immigrants and to resist the “siren call of the angriest voices,” a not-so-veiled reference to Trump. The governor, who led the charge to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House grounds after the Charleston church shooting, solidified her place on the list of potential Republican vice presidential candidates, though not on Trump’s.
The presidential race ran through Obama’s speech. He knows that if a fellow Democrat doesn’t win in November, his legacy is in danger. So he spoke far more to voters across the country than to Washington politicians.
“I believe in change,” he said in closing, echoing the theme of his historic first campaign in 2008, “because I believe in you, the American people.”