For one last time, President Obama took to the rostrum of the House chamber, observing an old ritual with a new purpose: shaping history.
Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night was no nostalgia trip, though the president and many around him were mindful of its timing, nearly eight years to the day after an Iowa victory launched his unlikely path to the White House.
It was a chance for reflection and a bit of self-congratulation, not least for helping the nation rebound from its worst economic downturn in more than half a century — though he was careful to credit the American people and acknowledge their continued unease.
It was an opportunity, too, for a last summons on issues such as gun control, income inequality and immigration reform, which still rest on the incomplete side of his presidential ledger.
But more than anything, the nearly hourlong speech was Obama’s effort to have a say in who follows him into the Oval Office. The next election could help cement accomplishments like his signature healthcare program, a nuclear deal with Iran and moves to stem climate change, or fell them in a single blow.
The president lacks the votes in Congress to safeguard those efforts, much less pass other bitterly disputed pieces of his legislative agenda. His middling public approval ratings draw little in the way of deference from critics, or even restive allies. But Obama still commands attention each time he opens his mouth — never more so than occasions like Tuesday night’s rarefied set piece.
Afforded the grandest stage in all of American politics, the fiercely competitive president seemed almost cocky as he effectively kicked off his 2016 campaign, plainly itching to enter the fray and address what has been a running commentary on his time in office.
“All the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. So is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker,” Obama said, wagging a finger as rumbling arose from the Republican side of the chamber. “Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.”
He repeated the last line three times for emphasis.
Obama, of course, will never again have to place his name on an election ballot, or have his policies weighed in a public referendum. But that is not to say he is immune from the judgment of voters, or has no stake in their deliberations.
The calculation is straightforward, as David Axelrod, a longtime Obama advisor, explained it: “The stronger he is going into the election, the stronger his [poll] numbers, the better the chances of Democrats retaining the White House.”
Given perhaps his last, best chance, Obama sought to frame the stark choice he sees between Republicans and his fellow Democrats.
He nodded to the anxieties that have made this a most angry and tumultuous election season.
The workplace has changed, he said, due in part to technology and a less-forgiving world economy that has sundered the social contract between workers and their employers. People are feeling squeezed, Obama acknowledged, “even when they have jobs, even when the economy is growing.”
The black-and-white verities of the Cold War have given way, he said, to a complex and confusing world in which free-floating terrorists cause greater anxiety than hostile states. But no one, he said, should doubt the country’s resolve.
“When you come after Americans,” Obama said, “we go after you. It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limits.”
In the main, however, Obama’s speech was determinedly upbeat and relentlessly optimistic. Even if the language failed to reach the heights of his most soaring rhetoric, it was meant to contrast with the grave tone and grim prognoses of the GOP field.
“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” he said, in what sounded like one of several rebukes of the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, and his pull on others in the party. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”
“We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” he added later. “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.”
After a 2014 midterm election that cost Democrats control of the Senate, there was talk of a hapless Obama limping through the end stage of his presidency. Instead, 2015 proved one of his most productive years in office — for good or ill, depending on one’s partisan view — yielding a budget agreement with congressional Republicans, a diplomatic opening to Cuba, the nuclear-containment deal with Iran and major trade accord with Asian-Pacific nations.
The prospect of similar accomplishments this election year appears dim. Republicans aren’t eager to hand the president any legislative victories. Each day he edges closer to his final exit from office, and the public increasingly focuses on his would-be successors.
But commanding a big national audience for one of the final times in his presidency, Obama showed Tuesday night he has no plans to go passively, or to leave it to others to fight over the country’s future.
His legacy depends on it.
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