Obama warns against fear in State of the Union speech.

President Obama name-dropped Pope Francis but didn't adopt the pope's global perspective. (Image from whitehouse.gov)

President Obama’s presumably final State of the Union address was something like a scolding of the American people, carefully wrapped up in complements about how brave and resilient we are—or are supposed to be. He took not-at-all-disguised swipes at the Republicans running to succeed him, particularly Donald “Make America Great Again!” Trump.

“America has been through big changes before,” Mr. Obama said only a few minutes into the speech, “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.”


The tone was genial, but the president seemed to trying to contain his irritation and disbelief that the political conversation of the past six months has been dominated by a blowhard like Mr. Trump, who has thrived in the polls after making derogatory comments about immigrants from Mexico and then proposing to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Mr. Obama was not being merely rhetorical when he asked, “Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?”

The president showed impatience with America’s growing fear of terrorism after the ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, saying, “as we focus on destroying ISIL [the White House’s preferred term for the terrorist group], over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands.” Still, his reassurance that “our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world” may have been undercut by his admission that “even a handful of terrorists…can do a lot of damage” and “they use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country.” No wonder the military brass in attendance at the speech looked uniformly grim.

Long before Mr. Trump arrived on the political scene, the president was already frustrated with Republicans on Capitol Hill, and last night he sarcastically referred to their skepticism of climate change by saying, “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.”

But Mr. Obama also said, “one of the few regrets of my presidency [is] that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.” (Many political scientists strongly disagree with that nostalgia-clouded last sentence, arguing that the main reasons for polarization predate the Obama administration.) In only the second paragraph of the speech, he said, “I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse.” The new speaker of the Republican-controlled House, Paul Ryan, did not encourage such thinking, keeping a poker face and staying seated throughout almost the entire speech. At one point, Mr. Obama said, “We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder,” prompting Vice President Joe Biden to leap to his feet while Mr. Ryan sat out the Democrats-only applause line. But then the president surely expected that reaction.

Name-dropping the pope

In his argument against xenophobia, the president cited that other famous person to address a joint session of Congress last year: “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, 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…. And it betrays who we are as a country.”

It was a good riff (one of the most-shared on Twitter), but at several points we were reminded that the president has a national constituency rather than the pope’s worldwide congregation. Mr. Obama’s call for action to fight climate change came with promises that the United States would enjoy an economic edge from adopting renewable energy. (“On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal.”) It would be impolitic to suggest that Americans have a responsibility as global citizens to preserve God’s gift of an inhabitable planet. (Certainly, no American president, at least not since Jimmy Carter, would echo Pope Francis in saying we’ve turned Earth into an “immense pile of filth.”)

Similarly, there was a politically protective bit of self-interest in the line, “When we help African countries feed their people and care for the sick, that prevents the next pandemic from reaching our shores.” Interestingly, when Mr. Obama got to that line, he apparently ad-libbed, after “sick,” “it’s the right thing to do, and that prevents…”—as if he decided, safely away from his speech-writing team, that the American people could stand a reminder of moral values.

But I would be disappointed with the speech if I worked for Catholic Relief Services, as the president did not directly address the panic over admitting Syrian refugees to the United States, which has been stoked by most governors and most Republican presidential candidates. This meant that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, delivering the official Republican response to the president’s speech, had the last and only word when she said, “In this age of terror, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.” Mr. Obama made a strong general argument against overreacting out of fear, but this was a specific issue he thought better to leave alone.

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Mike Evans
3 years ago
Ms. Haley was indeed a breath of GOP fresh air, compared to all the government bashing we've heard along the campaign trail so far. But the Republican radicals seem unmoved by more reasonable and sensible outsiders both among the press and GOP voting blocks. The current fear and loathing of immigrants is just one characteristic of the frenzied race to see which candidate is "tougher." None of these so far has shown any ability to be accepted in any of the courts of power, anywhere on our planet. They certainly will win no Nobel prizes!
Fred Close
3 years ago
This America Democratic party propaganda might better be tabbed "Conventional Unwisdom". Imagine the absurdity of "scolding" those "responding to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people" while vetoing the Bill to stop some of the atrocities of "Planned Parenthood"! And this with the Little Sisters of the Poor there! Or his too clever by half criticism of Pope Francis' recognition that WW III has already broken out in small ways all over the world as an "over the top claim" that plays into ISIS' hands, while his administration fails to admit Christians threatened by ISIS to the USA in accordance with the law. Pope Francis' view on this is balanced, and what Gov. Haley said was simply true, but one searches in vain in America Magazine for it! But hey! It was a political speech; the President admits that dialogue got worse under him; the Republicans share the blame for chaos posing as statecraft; and offense is easier than defense, because it requires more humility. Thanks be to God for the Year of Mercy! Mercy is our only hope!
J Cosgrove
3 years ago
If you want to understand why America magazine is out of touch, just read the series of responses by the editors posted yesterday. http://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/americas-state-union Mr. Sullivan is just another of the far left writers that America has employed. His sole job is to make Republicans look bad and Democrats look good and as such most of his commentary is very biased.
Vincent Gaglione
3 years ago
I voted for Obama both times. I held my nose for more than a few reasons. But his State of the Union was HIS summary of what HE CONSIDERED his accomplishments AND, to my mind, a necessary rebuttal to the venom currently being spewed by political opportunists as well. I do not look for moral instruction from a President but I appreciate it when it happens. But when it comes to morality, that’s what I’d like to hear loud and clear on all public issues from ALL of America’s Bishops and in all our pulpits. The irrational opposition to undocumented immigrants, the religious bigotry against Muslims, the extreme fear of Syrian and Muslim refugees already extensively vetted, and the tendency toward militarism (“carpet bombing”) vis-à-vis USA security – are they serious sins against Catholic Christian morality? I know they don’t violate evangelical morality because many of their prominent and leading ministers endorse some of the most vociferous candidates on those issues. Does Catholic silence bespeak assent as well?


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