In seven years as president, Barack Obama has been at his best when he talks about the urgent challenges of our times. He did so again Tuesday night in his final State of the Union address. He called for Americans to come together to reject extremist rhetoric and resolve the contradictory effects of powerful economic and technological changes wracking the country. But his speech was delivered to an audience in Washington and across the nation that is more starkly divided than ever before. And it’s unlikely that he changed any minds.
But he tried. Obama correctly noted that what all Americans want for themselves and the country — opportunity, security, peace, prosperity — is possible only if we work together and “fix” our rotten politics. His definition of that was critical. We can and should argue and disagree, he said, but we won’t make progress if we don’t trust one another. He pushed back forcefully against the doom-and-gloom vision and harsh language of his Republican nemeses, and correctly warned that failing to compromise would let extreme voices prevail, an implicit criticism of the likes of Donald Trump. And in so doing, Obama thrust himself squarely into the 2016 election.
The speech, as these affairs tend to be, was also an optimistic assessment of his presidency. That’s his right. He touted signature accomplishments such as Obamacare and the Iran nuclear deal. But he chose not to address the crisis of the moment, the 10 American sailors detained by Iran; apparently, his administration was assured by Iran that the sailors’ release was imminent.
Obama admitted his regret that political rancor has worsened during his tenure. In the Republican rebuttal, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said her party must accept some responsibility for the mess.
But the president closed with a rousing appeal to regular Americans to rise above that, reject fear and remain undaunted in the face of change. If they accept the challenge, this will be a speech to remember.