Barack Obama has finished 87 percent of the mission to which the American electorate assigned him with overwhelming mandates in 2008 and 2012. But he is not prepared to coast cautiously or quietly through the last of his eight years as president.
Obama’s final State of the Union address left no doubt that he intends to give 100 percent in the final 12 months of his second term. And he started doing so on Tuesday night.
Obama recognized that, while it is important for purposes of history and politics to reflect on what has been accomplished since January 20, 2009, it is even more important to focus on what can and must be accomplished before January 20, 2017.
“I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse—and heroin. We just might surprise the cynics again,” he told Republican members of Congress, adding that he wanted to work on an agenda that extended “from helping students learn to write computer code to personalizing medical treatments for patients. And I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing. Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families; they are still the right thing to do; and I will not let up until they get done.”
The pressure to “do the right thing” is real—and immediate.
At a point when the race to replace him is as volatile as it is unsettled, Obama cannot simply presume that he will be turning the Oval Office over to another Democrat following the 2016 campaign. As politically agile and engaged as any president in modern times—he is the first Democrat to win a majority vote in two successive presidential races since Franklin Delano Roosevelt—Obama knows that what he does in coming months could influence the presidential contest.
And he used his State of the Union address to do just that.
“The future we want—opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids—all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates,” said Obama, who added that
It will only happen if we fix our politics.
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 imperatives of security.
But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.
The president even proposed some ground rules for the politics of 2016, arguing for voting rights, for an end to gerrymandering and for genuine campaign-finance reforms—saying that “we have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.”
Obama acknowledged that “there are areas where it’s been more difficult to find agreement over the last seven years — namely what role the government should play in making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations. And here, the American people have a choice to make.”
What Obama was proposing was an honest debate—as opposed to one that divides and demonizes for purposes of political positioning—and he took a side in that debate.
“I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy. I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there’s red tape that needs to be cut,” he said. “But after years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else; or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered. Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts. In this new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less. The rules should work for them. And this year I plan to lift up the many businesses who’ve figured out that doing right by their workers ends up being good for their shareholders, their customers, and their communities, so that we can spread those best practices across America.”
The president was at his strongest when—in a clear rebuke to billionaire presidential contender Donald Trump and his fellow Republican contenders—he decried the anti-Muslim rhetoric of billionaire presidential contender Donald Trump and his fellow contenders.
“[We] need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong,” said Obama. “The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith. His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I stand tonight that ‘to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.’ When politicians insult Muslims whether abroad or our fellow citizens, 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. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
Extending on that theme, as part of a substantial discussion of foreign policy, Obama argued for diplomacy and global cooperation rather than more wars. This was not an anti-war address, but it was a speech that argued against the sort of indiscriminate and ill-thought war making proposed by the likes of Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
“The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage,” Obama explained. “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”
While the president used a good deal of his address to acknowledge the reality of the race to replace him, he also reminded Americans that he has a year to lock in accomplishments and to initiate progress that will extend into the tenure of the next president—whether that president is a Democrat or a Republican.
So it was that, while Obama detailed the successes of his presidency, he also laid out a fresh vision. At the heart of this State of the Union address was an argument that America can meet the challenges posed by a technological revolution, globalization, climate change, and threats to domestic and global security by recognizing opportunities to change and grow as a nation.
In the key section of the speech, Obama said:
We live in a time of extraordinary change—change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world. It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.
America has been through big changes before—wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the “dogmas of the quiet past.” Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did—because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril—we emerged stronger and better than before.”
That’s a grand vision, which is worthy of pursuit.
The pursuit will not be easy, however.
This president must work with a Republican congressional opposition that has taken obstructionism to extremes. That opposition continues to seize on every opening to attack and ridicule Obama; on Tuesday, Republicans sought to exploit tensions following the brief detention by Iran of the crews of two small US Navy patrol boats that reportedly drifted into Iranian territorial waters.
The task will be made even more difficult if the president focuses his energies on advancing the fundamentally-flawed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Congressional Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the agreement, as do many Republicans. If Obama squanders his last year trying to cobble together a coalition of corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats to vote against the best interests of working Americans and the environment, he runs the risk of creating deeper divisions—not just between parties but within them—and he might still lose the TPP fight.
The better strategy is to focus on uniting the Democrats behind popular initiatives, such as a minimum-wage hike or initiatives to address the crushing burden of student-loan debt, and to take advantage of election-season jitters to convince vulnerable Republicans to do the right thing. The combination of a bully pulpit and an election year can be a powerful one for a savvy president, and Obama is savvy.
But if it is not possible to build coalitions to do the right thing, Obama has other tools. His increasing comfort with the use of executive orders is significant, as it allows Obama to make immediate and popular policy shifts that will be hard for a successor to undo. The president should be just as comfortable using his veto power. And he should employ every opportunity to make appointments and to fight for the approval of those appointments where it is required.
These are the tools available to any president. But they are only of value when a president is ready to use them, rather than to slip away into a diminished lame-duck status.
Obama’s final State of the Union address signaled a determination to use those tools. Progressive and responsible Americans should be excited by this prospect. Barack Obama says he wants to do great things in the final year of his presidency. That’s great news for everyone who recognizes that, while the 2016 presidential race may be exciting, the person best positioned to achieve progress in the country in 2016 is not a candidate. It is the sitting president, who in 2012 was reelected with a popular vote and Electoral College mandate to serve a full four-year term. A quarter of that second term remains, and Obama has indicated that he is ready to make something of it—in Washington and on the 2016 campaign trail—as a president who remains “optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”