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.