President Obama's final State of the Union address was, in large part, a defense of his seven years in office -- from proud assertions of the success of his economic policies to a detailed justification of his much-criticized restraint in foreign affairs. But the president made one admission of failure: "It's one of the few regrets of my presidency -- that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."
Oddly, this is the one thing for which he deserves the least credit or blame. Obama came into office offering an olive branch to the opposition and got nothing but arrows in return. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell openly vowed to do everything possible to make Obama a one-term president, and his compatriots in the Senate and the House adopted a stance of knee-jerk rejection of anything Obama proposed.
The ideological gunslingers in the conservative media and the vicious paranoiacs in the right-wing blogosphere were worse. They concocted a portrait of the president as a usurping, anti-American monster hell bent on mongrelizing the nation, confiscating guns, appeasing terrorists and criminalizing Christianity. Only a year into Obama's first term, at least one conservative evangelical website was speculating that the man in the White House might, in fact, be the Antichrist.
It is deeply disturbing that millions of Americans bought into this mendacity. Preposterously, a majority of Republicans still do not believe that the president was born in the United States. Conservatives can reasonably disagree with Obama on many issues, from healthcare to his handling of the chaos in the Middle East, but the unrelenting slander of a president whose character is exemplary and whose personal life is untouched by scandal is despicable.
There have been few other presidents who have so well articulated, in speech after speech, an inspirational vision for a more perfect union. He came to national prominence as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and, in that oration, said, "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."
In his final State of the Union speech, he returned to that theme, though now tinged with the bitter experience of his embattled years as president:
"A better politics doesn't mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That's one of our strengths too. Our founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.
"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."
You would think this sentiment would be greeted with applause, but, of course, the Republicans in the House chamber sat on their hands. There was one hopeful sign following Obama's speech, however. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley delivered the Republican response in which she articulated sharp disagreements with the Democratic administration, but opened with some respectful words about the president. More surprisingly, Haley called for a rejection of angry, loud, divisive voices that would separate Americans by race or religion -- a clear shot at the demagoguery of the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump.
"Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference," Haley said. "That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying."