Obama Rallies American Optimism during Final State of the Union

By Angela Su

Source: Getty Images

In the eighth and final State of the Union address of his presidency, President Barack Obama directed attention to the progress made in the last seven years, and warned the country against divisive politics promoted by fear and cynicism.

The speech was expected to try to cement Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy, pave the way for a Democratic presidential candidate, and was advertised beforehand by the White House as “non-traditional,” “optimistic,” and “action-oriented.” As promised in the video trailer released last week, Mr. Obama refrained from introducing the new year’s new legislative agenda, as is the tradition for the State of the Union. Instead, Mr. Obama highlighted economic progress, encouraged growth in medical research and clean energy sources, defended his controversial moderate stance on terrorism, and emphasized the need for bipartisan cooperation in achieving further economic growth and national security.

As expected, Mr. Obama cited statistics of “an unemployment rate cut in half,” and “14 million new jobs,” 900,000 of which were from the auto industry, to bolster his assertion that the economy has grown significantly and is growing still. The success of the auto industry was a widely celebrated victory for the Obama administration. Mr. Obama also highlighted other recent perceived victories, such as high school graduation rates, and the nearly eighteen million people who have gained coverage through the Affordable Care Act. The president’s optimistic speech countered the economic anxiety and fears of terrorism that have darkened the tone of this election year’s politics.

Mr. Obama also announced a new national effort to cure cancer “once and for all” with Vice President Biden “in charge of Mission Control,” referencing the “moonshot” of President John F. Kennedy’s dramatic goal of sending an American to the moon within the timeframe of a decade. He compared the critical necessity of cancer research to that of developing clean energy sources, and almost mocked disputers of climate change as “pretty lonely,” an indicator of the recent worldwide progress in social, and political environmental reform.

One of Mr. Obama’s most unpopular choices of his presidency was his staunch refusal to cater to the popular media’s fearmongering of terrorism. On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama acknowledged the threat and danger of terrorist groups, al Qaeda and ISIL, but argued that “over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands...they do not threaten our national existence.” Mr. Obama contended that the U.S. has made significant progress in the war against these terrorist groups and in foreign diplomacy in general, citing airstrikes, global cooperation, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He criticized republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz without mentioning their names: “our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians...When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer.”

Mr. Obama’s main goal in the beginning of his first term of presidency was to change the way politics worked, one of many goals that will likely be unfulfilled, as his two terms have seen a growing division between parties. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency -- that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better, “ the president stated near the end of his speech. Mr. Obama challenged Americans to change the political process through Democratic stances on campaign finance reform, and congressional redistricting.

Surprisingly, Obama did not highlight this past year’s gun violence, and the need for reform in gun control legislation. Obama mentioned it only once, in the beginning of his speech, among a list of domestic policy priorities for his final year, which included “personalizing medical treatments…Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage.” Perhaps the attention gained from last week’s tearful announcement of the executive actions enforcing, among other measures, background checks and dealer licenses, was enough and gave room for other issues, like prescription-drug abuse, and criminal justice reform. The somber tone of gun violence would have contrasted with the overall upbeat, and optimistic message of the president’s final address of this scale.

“That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That's what makes me so hopeful about our future,” President Obama said.

For the most part, the advertising was accurate. The president’s speech was filled with optimism, introduced no new ideas, and probably changed no opinions about his presidency. While the the president insisted that the state of the union was strong, arguing that the country had seen strong economic growth, and significant progress in foreign diplomacy and against terrorism, the majority of the public disagrees with him. In a poll by the Pew Research Center, 52 percent disapprove of Obama’s performance on the economy, 56 percent disapprove of his handling of immigration policy, and only 39 percent approve of his handling of international trade. President Obama acknowledged economic and international skepticism, but his defense of his administration’s achievements are not strong enough to persuade dissenters and are unlikely to change public opinion enough to affect the upcoming election.