Obama’s final State of the Union speech exemplified him and his presidency, both strengths and weaknesses. In the end, Obama’s presidency is partly tragic because of how much more such a talented and gifted man like Obama could have accomplished with a better approach, but even that cannot detract from what is objectively his mostly positive record and legacy.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse January 18, 2016
Evan Vucci – Pool/Getty Images
AMMAN — President Barack Obama began his final State of the Union speech by speaking undeniable facts about the strength of the economy, later followed by undeniable facts about the security threats from terrorism: how bad they were, and how bad they were not, with a caution against fear and bigotry, in addition to discussing other issues. These are facts that most Republican candidates want to ignore or deny. In fact, Obama sounded like a reasonable man asking for reasonable things. Not, generally, pie in the sky idealism, not calls for the improbable but just the doable. He busted myth after myth, from the economy to climate change to immigration to foreign policy. He mentioned smart, sensible, non-extremist goals and strategies on domestic and foreign policy. The rational man calling for rational things was a sad picture, though, too: he was addressing a Congressional body that has been anything but rational since the advent of the Tea Party. Thus, there is a tragic quality to the scene of such a rational man addressing a multitude consisting of mainly the irrational.
There were many bittersweet things about watching Obama’s final State of the Union speech. Actually, that’s an understatement because there were many bittersweet feelings as I was watching this man, my president, for whom I had voted twice, give his final address to Congress as outlined in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution. This meant that my reactions went from being proud and pleased to being disappointed and frustrated. But even for his faults, very humanely put on display last night, I could not help but like, admire, and respect this great man as I saw and heard him speak.
No matter how frustrated I am with President Obama, his greatest traits always shine through. Let’s go through them in detail, as displayed in this final State of the Union speech:
1.) The sheer force of his vast intellect and his willingness to use it
Even if you absolutely hate Obama and are a rabid Trump supporter, it is impossible to deny that this man has a brilliant mind. You might disagree with how he uses it, you might think his understanding of the world is naïve and childish and flat-out-wrong, but the man is unabashedly a thinker and is clearly a man who thinks through things deeply, who is very articulate and well read, and who clearly was not out of place intellectually at Harvard Law School, where he stood out among one of the highest concentrations of brilliant and ambitious minds in the world.
This is a man who got to see much of the world at an early age and became wiser for his experiences abroad, who clearly displays both a boundless intellectual curiosity and strong tendency to spend time deliberating over problems rather than carelessly rolling dice and jumping into situations impulsively with the feeling of some sort of grand divine wind at his back, markedly unlike his predecessor. After overdosing on a wanna-be “cowboy” (whatever that means) who thinks that John Wayne is an acceptable source for political philosophy, I was perhaps always and foremost grateful for this aspect of President Obama after eight years of George W. Bush. I knew that Obama was a man who would spend time thinking over issues and was smart and worldly enough to make his own decisions based on his own understanding, not just rely on personal relationships and trust to make decisions based mainly on who were better advocates of their own agendas because of a Bush-esque lack of a command of the issues. Like Lincoln, Obama had many smart people around him, his own team of rivals, and more often than not he played them and their disagreements against each other to get the best advice and then make his own decision with their input. Bush, on the other hand, was a victim of his own team’s rivalries, and lacked the knowledge and judgment to realize when his closest, most trusted people were flat out wrong until it was far too late.
If anything, Obama moved the pendulum too far into the deliberative mode at the expense of action some of the time, but, frankly, this is exactly what the American voters as a whole decided they wanted after George W. Bush: they would rather have their leader overthink than underthink, rather not act after the “decisive” impulsive blunders of Bush lead to national disasters unprecedented in modern history than act too rashly. We’d had enough of “the decider” and his “decision points;” in many ways, the image of our president being Rodin’s The Thinker was a comforting one, and an image we badly needed to send to the world at the time. His general policy—“Don’t do stupid shit”—may not be perfect but it was just what we wanted (and in many ways needed) after what many consider to be a “lost” decade of recklessness and missed opportunities. To be fair to Obama, while I would argue that there are some big moments when he should have acted more and thought less, I am willing to admit that I respect the fact that he respected the fact that out power is not limitless and that our capacity for error and for the possibility of unintended consequences were rational reasons not to do more.
His thoughtful, deliberative State of the Union certainly reminded us that we had a thoughtful, deliberative president.
2.) A superb understanding of the problems of America and the world
AP Photo/Jacky Naegelen, pool
I’ve studied politics, international relations, foreign affairs, conflict, and policy for over fifteen years now. Most Americans have not. That places a gulf between most of them and me, the same way an electrical engineer, surgeon, or mandarin speaker who each studied their crafts for over fifteen years would put a vast gulf between themselves and me on those subjects. It therefore gives me great comfort to see, in Obama, someone who thinks like me: he looks at a problem, studies it, and then uses that info to figure out what needs to be done. There is not a tremendous amount of ideology in this approach, save aversions to cynicism, selling people out, and acting on emotion. He knows how to look at the world and he understands it in the general sense of the way I do. He understands that complex problems do not usually have simple solutions and that reducing things to “good” and “evil” is not usually a productive way to problem solve. He is also culturally sensitive and has a knack for speaking to people on their terms, not his or ours (that, my friends, is how you reach people). With Obama, I never had to worry about some sort of irrational, emotional, born-again, religious-driven approach to public policy and political problems. Regardless of how effective he was as a leader, knowing that Obama could see problems, America, and the world clearly and appreciate that strategy and tactics, speech and deeds, are different things, gave me great comfort.
That in his speech he put a proper perspective on things like terrorism and immigration, where so much misinformation, emotion, and irrationality are omnipresent, was fitting and characteristic of Obama indeed.
3.) Cool, calm, and collected
Another thing I love about Obama is that that man has self-control and knows that getting worked up, and working people up, is often part of the problem in Washington. He can be relaxed and actually crack some good jokes while being cool and professional. I appreciated that he made decisions based on a cold analysis, not raw emotions. The man generally keeps his composure in a way far too many politicians now, especially Tea Partiers, routinely fail to do. Sure, sometimes people wanted him to be more emotional, but are we that childish that we need our leader to explicitly and loudly express whatever emotions we are feeling at the moment? Sometimes, I think Republicans think being president is like being a high school football coach (no wonder the areas where high school football is so popular tend to vote Republican). Obama knows that a cool delivery is all the more effective: Republicans freaked out when Obama didn’t start screaming and bombing in response to Putin’s moves in Ukraine, but Obama fairly quietly implemented sanctions that have helped to cripple Russia’s economy; that’s some Darth Vader stuff, with Obama practically Force-choking Putin economically. That’s pretty badass in a leader.
Obama always carried himself with grace and dignity, not with goofiness and shooting-from-the-hip eye-roll-inducing gaffes. After Bush, Obama felt a bit like James Bond, and that was refreshing. Yes, sometimes he would tear up when talking about murdered children, sometime he would channel the great African-American rhetorical tradition to communicate in a different style than his normal approach, but Obama was usually one cool customer in an era where the rhetoric has increasingly become hyperbolic and extreme. Often, those making the most noise and spewing the most venom were quick to blame Obama for the partisanship, but just listening to Obama and taking in his delivery, it was clear they had no one to blame but themselves for the tone and partisanship of the era.
Throughout most of the last seven years, at the very least the President of the United States did his best to personally set an example of a tone that was respectful and measured, grounded and cordial relative to what was devolving around him. That he kept his cool so well in these trying times was a credit to him and his presidency, showing that it was possible to operate a measured, mature approach. And often (see the Benghazi hearing with Clinton) but not always, he laid down an example that his party followed much more often that the Republicans did.
4.) Obama’s likability
Admit it: Obama is just likable. He’s obviously super smart but also has a common touch, able to talk sports or music and crack a good joke while he is out and about. He smiles a lot (and what a killer smile) and can speak and appeal to people of all kinds of diverse backgrounds. The man can also sing, whether it’s Al Green or “Amazing Grace.” He is relaxed, and easy to talk to, and thrives in town-hall style meetings. In fact, the second town-hall-style debate against Romney was the moment for many when Obama successfully fended off Romney’s candidacy. It’s not bad to have a cool president that people at home and around the world actually like and can identify with when he travels around the world. Heck, even some Republicans admit that Obama is a likable guy. This quality of his was very much on display as he delivered his final State of the Union speech, which he even opened with a joke about the 2016 presidential race.
5.) Obama’s idealism
Soon, I will be brutally honest about Obama’s idealism’s limitations and its downside, but, to be fair, I must also acknowledge its positives. Many Americans find themselves cynical and jaded (myself among them); some are so desperate to find change that they flock to dangerously naïve, inexperienced, and unprepared candidates, or to those who have virtually no shot at winning a general election. To have our head of state not give into this cynicism and to be constantly promoting a lofty idealism, and at least show the American public and the world that even if we have given up on each other and ourselves that our leader has not, is not insignificant. Even if they seem distant, the visions of America, its people, and its politics that Obama keeps dangling in front of us that at least remind us what is, theoretically at least, possible, even if not this year or even soon. And it is important for us to hear these things. Obama keeps confidently projecting that our best days are ahead of us, and, in spite of all the problems we face, he may be right. One thing Obama that deserves credit for understanding is that if Americans don’t believe we have better days ahead, that makes it that much more difficult bring about a more positive reality. Even if Obama has failed to convince many of this, you sure can’t blame him for trying.
Obama also knows how essential it is that the Democrats and Republicans work together to pass legislation to solve America’s problems, even if Republicans in Congress are not very interested in working with him or Democrats at all. That Obama tried, and tried hard, to reach out to Republicans—for example: helping to incorporate many conservative, Republican-originated ideas into the Affordable Car Act (ACA)—is something else which for which he is to be commended to a degree, at least in principle. Even in his final State of the Union, Obama pleaded not only with politicians but with the American people to work together for the common good with passion and eloquence, laying a vision of the future that should be a common aspiration for all Americans.
Having just gone over what I will miss most about Obama, using his speech to illustrate these points, now, I will go over what I find most frustrating about him, using the same speech.
1.) Obama’s idealism
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Yes, we have some overlaps here: one of Obama’s greatest strengths is perhaps also his greatest weakness. Obama came into office ready to hold hands with Republicans, take their ideas into account and include them in his programs, ready to sit down at the table with them and discuss, discuss, and discuss… He expected reasoned and prevailed argument to prevail. His expectations were lofty indeed, and reality never came close to them. As I noted, to a degree this is admirable. But pretty early on—in fact, even before he assumed office—it was clear that a dark undercurrent of America’s polity, harnessing racism, ignorance, fear, demagoguery, regionalism, and obstructionism at some of its worst manifestations since the Civil Rights Era—was coming to take corporeal form; it was clear when only three Republican senators and zero Republican representatives voted for the stimulus package, but the form of this dark undercurrent was most visibly demonstrated in the gestation of the Tea Party in the season of the great “debate” over health care reform. In many places in the country, mobs shouted down congressman attempting to defend or discuss the Administration’s attempts at healthcare reform during town hall meetings with their constituents. The Democrats’ plan advocated by Obama incorporated several significant conservative and Republican-originated ideas, and gave up on some long-held liberal dreams like a public-option or a single-payer system, but this made no difference to congressional Republicans in the end and got him not one single Republican vote for the Affordable Care Act. Basically, Obama began negotiations with major compromises, intended as an olive branch to win over Republican goodwill, but seeking that goodwill proved to be a fool’s errand as, in the end, the Republicans were only interested in obstruction or sabotage. This meant that Obama began from a weakened bargaining position, having already offered compromises publicly to a hardened and intransigent Republican Party that had no interest cooperating with Obama whatsoever.
Yes, it made sense for him to try to work with Republicans, but not long after it was clear they would not work with him, he should have gone into combat mode. Instead, he kept trying to earn their support long after it was clear it was not coming. What was most unforgivable is that Obama continued this style of “leadership” well after the lessons of the stimulus and ACA, for years, even into his second term, and this resulted in Obama being repeatedly outplayed on budget deals, to the frustration of his own party; through this approach, Obama also unwittingly helped to legitimize threatening both government shutdowns and not voting to raise the debt ceiling as legitimate hostage-taking-style tactics for Republican extremists because he rewarded such threats, while his own efforts at bipartisanship have gone largely unrewarded. It was hard for me not to laugh out loud when Obama suggested in his speech that even now Republicans and Democrats could work together to pass meaningful legislation…
In his speech he also seemed to think that somehow the American people will improve the tone and tenor of our politics, which seem terribly naïve, given that we ourselves are becoming increasingly more partisan and that we are the ones who have been electing increasingly partisan people to office who are reflecting the pressures that we are placing upon them.
Sadly, the same idealism that made him such an attractive candidate and helped propel him into the White House was one of his largest constraints while he was in office. Even as he appealed to our idealism in his final State of the Union, for many, including his supporters, the limits of his idealism and the problems it caused were only too painfully obvious.
2.) Obama’s disdain of politics, or, Obama the professor vs. Obama the president
There are times when I wonder if Obama knows the difference between lectures and leadership, being a professor and being a president. This State of the Union speech, sadly, was one of those times.
I will admit, I kind of felt stupid when I was watching the speech. When Obama started talking about how much our system needed to change, when he mentioned redistricting (which I have identified as one of the major problems facing our democratic republic), I thought for the briefest of seconds that he was going to say advocate constitutional amendments to address redistricting and money in politics (Hillary Clinton has been advocating a constitutional amendment to help address campaign finance for some time). Barring some sort of major disaster/attack, this is the last time Obama will command the attention of this large a number of Americans, so I thought he might, I don’t know, be bold. That he would call for a constitutional amendment, that he would announce a plan to mobilize activists to lobby state legislatures and congressmen and that he would tour the country to drum up support and force the issue just in time for the election. But that’s kind of a lie; I knew deep down that this is what I wanted, that this is what I wished, but that this was not on Obama’s nature or character. This was classic Obama, giving a lecture to university students: “Ok class, today I’m going to lay out what the problems are, and discuss what needs to be done to solve those problems.” And, much like a professor, Obama does both these things excellently. But then the lecture is up, like all situations with all professors and all classes, nothing happens after class. Like a professor, he steps away from the podium as if it is not his role to take a commanding lead and tell us step-by-step what his plan is and how he will take us all forward, how he will overcome obstacles, how he will get things done. Like a professor, he look at the presidency in a pure, academic form, where the Constitution does not call for the president to campaign for his party and its agenda. Thus ends theory, but in practice the party of the president very much relies the president to be its campaigner in chief. But Obama, with his clear disdain of politics, shunned this role, tried to remain aloof and apart from the party politics. In fact, he did this to such a degree that members of his own party angrily complainedthat he was not helping them enough in their reelection campaigns, a traditional if informal part of the modern presidency. In general, Obama stayed out of the trenches and preferred to delegate lobbying Congress to his vice president, Joe Biden.
Even on his greatest domestic policy accomplishment—The Affordable Care Act—this is more than amply demonstrated. Obama the professor campaigned on the broad outcomes we needed in healthcare reform. Obama the professor then let Congress and the American people debate for months about what a plan would and would not look like, let congressional democrats take the lead in crafting a plan. Obama the professor even held an academic-conference-like summit with Congressional Republicans and Democrats (it accomplished nothing: note the lack of similar summits after this one). At no point did he simply say “Here is the plan my team and I have come up with” and pressured his own party like hell to pass it when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. Obama the professor preferred to stay aloof and above the politics as much as possible, Obama the professor viewed a clear line between Congress and the Presidency when it came to legislation, preferring to let Congress, not his team, write the bill. Obama never made any public attempt to advocate for single-payer or a public option, and the Affordable Care Act was significantly weaker and less impressive than it could have been, starting from a position already offering compromise and hanging in the air for months while the President stayed on the sidelines and during which public opinion, exposed to unified Republican distortions and misinformation without President Obama leading Democrats with a vigorous counternarrative, soured on the bill. The end result reflects all these tactical and strategic mistakes by the Obama Administration, and even for all its accomplishments, the ACA fell far short of what it could have been. Thus, in the end, ACA/Obamacare was far less than the outcomes Obama had campaigned for, but having delegated the task of crafting the solution to lesser men, the result is hardly surprising.
This was how Obama acted when it came to his signature piece of domestic legislation, so I must have been crazy if I thought Obama was going to help lead and guide an attempt at a constitutional amendment overturning the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
Even now, I want to scream at Obama, “You have time! Pick one big thing and just throw yourself into it, be relentless, tour the country, lobby individual Congressman, president like your time presidenting is almost over, because it is almost over!” But it would be useless. And this is probably the most vexing thing for me when it comes to Obama, something I will never understand. What happened to the “fierce urgency of now???” It sure could have been fiercer. And with a gifted politician like Obama in the vanguard… well, the tantalizing thoughts of lost possibilities, especially in the crucial first few years, especially when there was a chance to dent the impact of the Tea Party, are heartbreaking to consider…
This last Obama State of the Union speech was Obama at his best, but also his worst. It was Obama being Obama.
How, then, in the end, will Obama be remembered? Perhaps, not altogether fairly, he will be remembered primarily as America’s first non-white and first black president (even though he is half white!). This is an extremely symbolic thing and yet the making it happen was quite a thing of substance. Yet this has nothing to do with the man’s accomplishments once in office: digging America out of the colossal economic ditch it was thrown into by the Bush Administration, first with the continuation and implementation of TARP and then Obama’s implementation of the stimulus, putting America on a slow but steady path to recovery; making America the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world and greatly reducing America’s dependence on foreign energy while also dramatically increasing America’s use of renewable energy; singing into law the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the greatest piece of domestic legislation and step forward for the American healthcare system since the Civil and Voting Rights Acts and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid under Lyndon Jonson in the 1960s; appointing two competent, fine women judges to the Supreme Court; bringing Osama bin Laden to justice; ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq responsibly; and achieving major diplomatic breakthroughs with both Iran and Cuba, achieving a nuclear agreement with the latter that should prevent a war between Iran and the West for many years to come and perhaps far beyond that.
The White House
Yes, Obama could have achieved so much more, could have fought harder and led more boldly, and it is a tragedy that he was unable to use the office of president more effectively. But it was the better angel of his nature—his desire to bring Republicans and Democrats together, to work in a bipartisan manner, to transcend party politics—that often led to his greatest frustrations, that led to his domestic power and accomplishments being very little for the last five years of his presidency after his initial two had accomplished so much. But his failures came from a place a good intentions in a way that is somewhat admirable, and, in the end, the balance sheet of history will show that his failures will not drown out his accomplishments and that he will be viewed positively by historians, at the very least a pretty good president presiding over extraordinarily difficult times, even if he will never be regarded as great. Especially coming after the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, Americans of all stripes should be grateful for his presidency; of course, the reality is that many of them will never realize this, let alone admit it, but history will vindicate him, if not the quality of American politics that took hold during his tenure, though that deterioration occurred in spite of his best efforts, not because of them.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
I’ll miss him, even as I hope the next president is better.
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