With last night’s State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama officially began his farewell tour.
Despite having nearly a year left on his term in office, Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, started his closing argument for how history will judge his eight years in office. He did so with a joke at the expense of the candidates vying for his job.
“Tonight marks the eighth year I’ve come here to report on the State of the Union. And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it shorter,” Obama said to laughter and a round of applause. “I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.”
Overall, it was quite different from the usual State of the Union speech, which often devolves into a laundry list of programs the president wants to implement. There was no waving to guests in the gallery who were there to punctuate his remarks. Obama even waited until the end of his speech to give the traditional reassurance that “the State of our Union is strong.”
Echoing his 2008 campaign theme of “change,” Obama said we are living in a time of “extraordinary change — change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world.” He urged Congress, and the American people, to not fear the changes that have shaped his presidency.
“America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights,” Obama said. “Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears.”
Obama said it was our American spirit that has made the progress of his presidency possible, citing the administration’s response to the Great Recession and the creation of Obamacare, amongst others.
According to the president, there are “four big questions that we as a country have to answer” about the future of the country, “regardless of who the next president is, or who controls the next Congress.”
“First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?” Obama asked rhetorically. “Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”
“First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?”
On the economy, Obama touted his record of private-sector job creation, halving the unemployment rate, and creating nearly 900,000 new manufacturing jobs in the past six years.
“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” Obama said. “What is true — and the reason that a lot of Americans feel anxious — is that the economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit and haven’t let up.”
The president noted that new trends have “squeezed workers” even with a growing economy. He placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of big business.
“Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated,” Obama explained. “Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.”
The first part of Obama’s solution was more education. He reiterated his plan outlined in last year’s address for providing two free years of community college.
The social safety net of Social Security and Medicare, the president argued, is more important now than ever before due to the loss of job security found in previous generations.
“After all, it’s not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber,” Obama joked. “For everyone else, especially folks in their 40s and 50s, saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher. Americans understand that at some point in their careers, they may have to retool and retrain. But they shouldn’t lose what they’ve already worked so hard to build.”
After outlining areas where there could be some bipartisanship, Obama recognized there are more that the two parties disagree on, “namely what role the government should play in making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations.”
“And here, the American people have a choice to make,” Obama said, alluding to this year’s elections.
“I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy. I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there’s red tape that needs to be cut,” the president said to applause from both sides of the aisle.
Obama then underlined what he sees is wrong with the current system, including corporations taking record profits while working families’ wages stagnate. He also told his audience that immigrants weren’t the reason wages haven’t increased.
“Those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns,” Obama said.
“Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?”
For his second “big question,” Obama called for a reignition of the spirit of innovation, contrasting the space race to America’s response to climate change.
“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon.”
Obama then recalled Vice President Biden’s remarks last year that “with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer.” He said Biden, who lost his son Beau to cancer last year, helped lay the groundwork in Congress to implement the plan.
“Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.”
Though he still backed the “military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree” climate change is real and man-made, Obama went for an economic argument.
“Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history. … In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal — in jobs that pay better than average. … Meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.”
“Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either,” Obama joked.
“Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?”
The president then segued into his third “big question” of national security. On this front, Obama got a resounding standing ovation when he said that the United States is “the most powerful nation on Earth. Period.”
He then reassured his critics that he is aware this is a dangerous time, but “not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower.”
Obama called for America to lead the way towards ensuring that the post-World War II international system be rebuilt to stand against future threats from China, Russia and also terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda. He also urged caution and warned against nation-building and falling into the trap of legitimizing ISIS by saying they threaten our national existence.
“American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world — except when we kill terrorists; or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling,” Obama said. “Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right.”
While discussing his foreign policy accomplishments, Obama made two allusions to two Republican presidential candidates.
The first was Ted Cruz.
“The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians,”Obama said. “That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”
Later, he invoked Pope Francis, who told Congress last year that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
“When politicians insult Muslims,” Obama said in thinly-veiled reference to Donald Trump, “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.”
“And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”
The coda of the president’s remarks focused on his fourth “big question”: fixing politics. He argued that the future was within our reach, but it will only happen if we can find some common ground and have “rational, constructive debates” instead of the ideological arguments currently found in politics.
“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests,” Obama said. “But 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. 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.”
Obama said he regrets that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better” during his presidency.
“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.”
The president didn’t assume blame completely.
“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.”
Obama then called for an end to gerrymandering, which he called “the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.”
He also called for campaign finance reform and advocated “to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now.”
He again invoked his campaign watchword “change.”
“What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.”