Seven years ago, incoming President Barack Obama gave a series of soaring orations—his electoral victory speech in Chicago, his inauguration speech in front of one of the largest crowds ever assembled in the United States, and his first State of the Union address, shortly afterward. All promised new beginnings and a better, fairer deal for ordinary Americans buffeted by vastly disruptive economic and political forces. All offered up a somewhat amorphous sense of hope as a salve for a damaged country and an anxious people.
This week, as he began the final year of his presidency, Obama delivered a similarly grandiose, hope-filled State of the Union speech. He was, he announced, talking not just about the coming year but about the coming decades.
Obama hit all the right rhetorical notes. In his opening remarks, he talked about the need for criminal-justice reform; about the dangers of a widening income gap; about the need to eliminate pay disparities between men and women; about the imperative of immigration reform and expanded healthcare access.
Over the next hour, he elegantly argued the need for a politics that doesn’t privilege the already powerful over millions of ordinary workers and their families, and for a regulatory system that properly protects people from the predations of large corporations and financial institutions. And, most importantly, without once calling out Trump or Cruz by name, he marshaled his strongest language to defend the open society and to denounce those who would “respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people.” He urged Americans “to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”
Yet, the fact that Obama felt compelled to spend the first half of his last State of the Union address talking about economic reforms that still need to be enacted, and the second half trying to stem the tide of a rising, snarling nativism, speaks volumes about the ambiguity of his presidential legacy.
Obama was elected in the wake of a catastrophic housing market and broader financial collapse. He spoke of big and bold reforms, and voters presented him with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enact systemic change. He could, and should, have broken up the big banks. At a time when there was double-digit unemployment, he could, and should, have used his podium to push a Democrat-controlled Congress to enact public-works programs on a scale far larger than that envisioned by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He could, and should, have used the moment for healthcare reform to argue the case for a single-payer system. He could, and should, have used federal dollars to massively expand the country’s affordable-housing and public-housing infrastructure.
Above all, in an era of catastrophic inequality—of wealth, of income, of access to property, and, by extension, of effective recourse to the political process—he could, and should, have shaped a national discourse around the urgency for large-scale progressive tax reform, for trade-union rights, for a genuine living wage, and for the expansive public-benefits infrastructure that residents of so many other first-world democracies take for granted.