The State of Obama's Union
Billed as a State of the Union address, President Obama instead delivered his own “I Have a Dream” speech Tuesday.
With two years of governance ahead, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetorical legacy in his mind this week, the president spoke with as much admiration for his own vision as the grit of the American people he celebrated.
Barack Obama was the “I” and “my” in a union he described as stronger, wiser and “freer.” His references to the traditional “we,” “us” and “our” were present, but this speech was a striking and full-throated appeal to history while the clock was still ticking. It’s not uncommon for second-term presidents to begin to frame their legacies while they have the bully pulpit, but it’s more common to see it in the waning months of the eighth year than at the outset of the seventh.
Obama and Democratic candidates were walloped in the November elections, a seismic, un-ignorable event that cast his legislative ambitions in doubt and made Tuesday’s pleas for “truth” and “a better politics” sound sweetly addled to his admirers and maddeningly disingenuous to GOP critics.
Somehow, the president skirted any acknowledgement of the midterm rout by substituting a reference to that inconvenient truth with riffs about partisanship, a malady he assigned to Washington and not to himself. But if he entered American politics to change the way things work, it seems he was changed along the way. Yet, in his future presidential library and in the bestselling books he will write in his post-presidency, the story line about the ebb of Democratic Party power on his watch will appear in agate type compared with the boast Obama improvised so tellingly near the conclusion of his hour-long address.
“I have no more campaigns to run,” he said, in a passage meant to explain why his agenda going forward is not defined by personal political considerations. “I know, because I won both of them!” he added, his chin jutting forward.
With his 75 references to “I,” “me” and “my,” it was as if Obama delivered a third inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2015, rather than the now-ritualized and constitutionally required report to Congress about how things are going.
Obama’s listeners, who liked the speech, according to several overnight polls, heard the president say their confidence six years ago that economic renewal was possible is now reality. To America’s middle class and everyone at the bottom of the ladder, the president had a simple agenda with lots of ingredients, including free community college, paid sick leave, mandatory minimum wages increases, and assorted tax breaks for working families. If the 2014 midterm electorate was trying to tell Washington to do less, Obama had a contrary message: “Let’s do more,” he said.
In his dreams, the legacy of the 44th president is still being written when it comes to domestic and international achievements. Will the Supreme Court gut the innards of the Affordable Care Act? Is the Obama doctrine – described by the president as “a smarter kind of American leadership” – really “making a difference,” as he asserted?
It is increasingly evident in his speeches and remarks the past few weeks that Obama feels the slippage of time, the weight of experience, and a sense that doors are closing that will open for his successor.
The president’s speech was an appeal to history, cloaked in the optimism of tomorrow. He presented himself as a conciliator with the Republican-controlled Congress, as well as a fierce combatant who is wielding veto threats daily. He cast himself as the most trusted translator of American values. Yes, he offered the caveat that he is a leader with many “flaws”—but he didn’t go so far as to actually name one. Here is how he advanced his “I Have a Dream” vision:
“I will not relent…”
“I am determined…”
“I intend to stay true to that wisdom…”
“I keep all options on the table…”
“I want Americans to win…”
“I intend to protect…”
“I believe it’s where Americans want to go…”
“I want to work with this Congress…”
“I still believe that we are one people,” Obama said. “I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. … I’ve seen the hopeful faces … I’ve mourned with grieving families… I know the good, and optimistic and big-hearted generosity of the American people.”
That story, the president made clear, is his story, and he will keep telling it every chance he gets.