It was at once a victory lap and a to-do list, an opportunity to shape a legacy in the midst of a legacy-making year. It was a farewell address that provided a plan for the future even as the national conversation has already shifted to those auditioning to deliver next year’s speech.
Mostly, Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address was an enjoining of the 2016 campaign and a progressive vision from a president who wants to ensure the preservation of his legacy.
It was a rebuttal to the negativity heard on the campaign trail – not just from Republicans, of whom that is expected, but even from Democratic candidates who are loathe to criticize the president directly while nevertheless promising to do better.
As a campaign speech, it was one of his finest.
A self-laudatory speech, it was also an acknowledgement that the gains the country has made under the Obama administration will necessarily have to be reinforced by a Democratic successor.
Yes, this administration has presided over 70 consecutive months of private sector job growth, including adding more net jobs in the last 12 weeks than were added in the last 12 years of Republican administrations. Millions more have health coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act – legislation so anathema to Republicans that they have voted to repeal it over five dozen times. Civil rights have been expanded, over the objections of many in Congress.
These accomplishments will not be easily undone but only a Democratic successor can build upon most of them, which is why this address resembled a political campaign speech in tenor as well as in tone.
It was not an accident that the speech dwelled largely on issues that resonate with the coalition of voters the next Democratic nominee hopes to capture: the focus on better-paying, sustainable jobs and economic security; better access to early-childhood, STEM and college education; entitlement protection; expanding health care treatments, including cancer research; combating climate change.
Democrats and Republicans have longed disagreed on what they consider to be the most pressing issues facing the nation and this speech reflected that rift. Republicans consistently cite homeland security as their top concern; for Democrats, terrorism ranks far behind jobs and the economy.
And that is why the president’s words regarding the relative danger posed by terrorists will be heard so differently by Democrats, who consider it less of a threat than gun violence, and by Republicans, who are most anxious about terrorism. As a political document, the president’s speech accomplished its goal, even if it did not reassure his critics.
But despite the president’s powerful appeal to a common citizenship, it was not only his emphasis on particular issues that belied his call for unity. And the challenges facing the nation were not just outlined from the podium.
They were apparent in the theater that always surrounds the State of the Union – from the first lady’s guests, who included a Syrian refugee and the plaintiff in the case that enshrined marriage equality as the law of the land – to the presence of Kim Davis , elsewhere in the chamber, the controversial county clerk from Kentucky (invited by a member of Congress who wished to remain anonymous), who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
They were present in the Muslim constituents who accompanied many legislators to the speech and in the two nuns from a Catholic order challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
And they were hauntingly reinforced by the empty chair in the first lady’s box, set aside in memory of the 30,000 victims who die every year from gun violence.
Each of these represented not just the divisions in Washington but served as a silent rebuttal to candidates running to deliver next year’s State of the Union speech.
Tellingly, they also underscored the divisions found in communities all across the country, where political disagreements have morphed into something more ominous and personal, where gerrymandering has largely ensured that politically minded people now rarely live among those with whom they substantially disagree.
As President Obama noted Tuesday night, the state of the union is strong. But it is also as divided today as it has ever been. And, despite his call for common citizenship, the prognosis for a more unified government looks as bleak for the next administration as it has been under this one.
It is not that we are not on the same page as a nation. As the president said, that is to be expected in a country this large and diverse.
It is that we can no longer even agree on whether the words on the page are written in the same language.