President Obama had one clear, consistent message in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening: Things aren’t as bad as you think they are.
At least, not nearly as bad as Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates claim.
For months, Obama has listened to a relentless drumbeat of GOP laments over the state of the nation: a failing economy, a doomed healthcare law, a string of defeats in foreign policy – in Republicans’ view, anyway.
Obama’s recurring theme in his speech was: balderdash.
On the economy, technology, foreign policy -- and even the prospects for a more conciliatory bipartisan political sphere – the president declared himself an undaunted optimist.
“The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” he said. “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.”
He cited a string of heartening statistics: a long streak of private-sector job creation, more than 14 million new jobs since 2009, unemployment at 5%.
Yes, he acknowledged, wages have been flat, young people have had a hard time launching their careers, and low-income families have been stuck in poverty. But still, not as bad as many people claim.
On foreign policy, too, Republican claims that the United States is getting weaker amount to “political hot air,” Obama said.
“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period,” he said. “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead; they call us.”
Still, Obama warned, it will take a long time to stabilize the Middle East, which he said “is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” (That’s a very long time.)
Finally, the president turned to American politics – the most difficult problem of all.
“The future we want …. will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates,” he said. “Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention.”
In a rare admission, he said he was disappointed that he failed to come anywhere near achieving his 2008 goal of bridging partisan political gaps.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said.
But to heal that breach, he said, requires more than just the efforts of a president.
“If we want a better politics,” he said, “it’s not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even change a president; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves.”
Here’s a shorter version of Obama’s message: Lower your expectations. The president who, when he won his party’s nomination of 2008, said this might be “the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless … the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” – that president is older and wiser now.
After seven years of work, he knows he may have to be satisfied when he leaves office with a sluggish economic recovery, a not fully rooted healthcare law and a foreign policy that still faces a generation’s work of challenges.
And if he had any doubts, all he needed to do was glance at the Twitter feed from the office of the man sitting behind him, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), transmitting critiques before Obama even finished:
“For too many, the American dream is slipping. Nothing they’ve heard tonight is very reassuring. A weak economy, a collapsing health care law, and a job-killing energy agenda.” Also: “The president’s foreign policy is a disaster.”