Barack Obama gave his last official State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, and viewed purely as performance it was a commanding work of oratory and rhetoric. The president has always been at his best when he’s not trying to cut a deal or make a sales pitch, and when he feels he has nothing to lose. You can’t fault this year’s SOTU for its breadth or vision: Obama was trying to set the terms of his final year in office, define his political legacy and frame the public perception of the 2016 campaign, whose topsy-turvy narrative is about to enter a critical period.
I don’t think it’s stretching the point to say that Obama gave a more downbeat and emotional unofficial SOTU a week or so earlier, speaking from the heart rather than the head, with his tearful address on gun violence. As I wrote at the time, that issue and our inability to deal with it — or even to define it clearly — has come to symbolize all the failures and disappointments of the Obama years. No doubt the president’s upbeat, almost Reaganesque demeanor before Congress on Tuesday struck many viewers as discordant with a nation that feels paralyzed by cultural, ideological and racial divisions, economically stagnant, politically dysfunctional and consumed by irrational fears. You can hardly blame him for seeking to wipe away the tears and observe that the sun will still come up tomorrow.
Obama is certainly within his rights to point out that his presidency has not been the unmitigated disaster depicted by the innumerable right-wing troglodytes who want to succeed him. A year ago, I held the conventional and charming notion that Rand Paul, with his faintly groovy, freewheeling libertarian views, posed the biggest threat to Hillary Clinton. Now Paul has become a figure of bathos and tragedy, complaining to talk-show hosts about his ejection from the GOP main stage. He is not nearly mean enough or crazy enough — or flat-out racist enough — for the Republican “base voter” of 2016.
By all conventional measures, the economy is in vastly better shape than when Obama took office in 2009, although the divide between rich and poor has gotten worse. As the president pointed out on Tuesday, the unemployment rate has fallen by half, and so has the price of gasoline. (I would describe that last fact as a mixed blessing, in planetary terms.) Millions of people have access to affordable healthcare who didn’t before, even if the mechanism is a patchwork compromise at best. Our wasteful and destructive overseas wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are — well, no, they’re not over exactly. Low energy? Reduced in intensity? Conducted from afar like a video game, or like the alien genocide of Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”? In any case Obama has kept us out of another ground war, for now.
As you see, I can’t help myself: Beneath all the things Obama said on Tuesday were all the things he didn’t say, or all the things he alluded to and brushed past. His delivery was suave, affable and relaxed; the speech was perfectly paced. It was fun to watch him repeatedly put House Speaker Paul Ryan, sitting stone-faced over his left shoulder, in an impossible position: Would Ryan applaud things that no reasonable person could oppose, like curing cancer or universal pre-K or extending tax cuts to low-wage workers, even at the risk of torrents of right-wing tweets accusing him of appeasing the socialist Kenyan dictator? (Ryan’s response: A few tepid claps, then hands back under his butt.) But if this SOTU was a car that looked good on the lot, we’re better off not opening the hood.
If the cliché holds that some men and women are born great, while others have greatness thrust open them, the same can surely be said of mediocrity and disappointment. Obama came to the White House openly aspiring to great things and almost overtly comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln, another tall Illinoisan with an analytical cast of mind and limited legislative experience. Despite the obvious differences between the two men and their historical contexts, the parallels are seductive: Both were political outsiders with unusual family backgrounds, who had been raised by independent-minded women. In office, they faced militant, implacable resistance from an opposition party that stood for the values and mores of the white Southern oligarchy.
Obama referred to Lincoln at least twice in Tuesday’s address. He did so once by name, in a striking admission that he has failed to address the partisan “rancor and suspicion” that dominates political life: “I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.” A minute or two later, in urging the public to demand change and not to abandon the political process, he briefly paraphrased the concluding passage of the Gettysburg Address: “That’s what’s meant by a government of, by and for the people.”
Of course the president who saved the union, ended slavery and redefined the mission of American democracy is quoted more often than any other, but Obama’s Lincoln references were not random or incidental. History will judge, over the next few decades or centuries, whether Obama’s failure to turn the tremendous wave of optimism that swept him into office toward meaningful policy or social change on any large scale was his fault or the Republicans’ fault or simply a reflection of a crumbling imperial nation in terminal decline. (If there is anyone left to write that history, that is.) We cannot possibly see that from the vantage point of the present.
But Obama is among the most well-read and well-educated people ever to hold his current office. He is well aware that Lincoln was not some Moses-like moral visionary calling down the lightning of justice, but a shrewd political operator who seized on the opportunities history threw in his path. In fact Lincoln was not first or foremost a moral visionary, as Eric Foner’s fascinating book on the Great Emancipator’s shifting views of race and slavery, “The Fiery Trial,” makes clear. Lincoln was always opposed to slavery, but for most of his political career he believed it would continue into the indefinite future, and would only end when white Southerners agreed to give it up. Well into the Civil War years, as Southern intransigence drove him toward an abolitionist position, Lincoln thought that most emancipated slaves would choose to leave the United States, because white Americans would not tolerate living alongside large numbers of “free Negroes.”
If the Confederacy had agreed to capitulate early in the war, while retaining its slaves, Lincoln would almost certainly have consented to that. His genius lay in perceiving the moral, existential and political crisis posed by the war, as the body count piled up and the national mood darkened, as an opening for what philosophers might call an epistemological shift. But it was also highly pragmatic. Proclaiming the end of slavery helped the Union win the war in concrete, material ways, by stripping the South of its wealth and its labor force and by supplying thousands of eager volunteers to the Union Army.
By repurposing Thomas Jefferson’s nearly forgotten language from the Declaration of Independence to his own ends, Lincoln also turned the war itself into an irresistible moral crusade. He gave the North a reason to win the war, a sense of mission. And at a single stroke he created a new template for American identity, in which the nation was an unfinished democratic experiment driven forward by industrial capitalism, universal citizenship and a strong central government. As Barack Obama can tell you better than anyone, we are still quarreling over that remodeled notion of America 150 years later, and the dominant strain in the Republican Party seems devoted to rolling it back as far as possible.
It is reasonable to claim that history and circumstance did not offer Obama a Lincoln-like moment of political opportunity, and that his opponents were too shrewd and too well financed, in a way the arrogant Confederates and their supporters were not. As I said earlier, conditions in 2009 were immeasurably different from those of 1861, and every new president must confront an immense interlocking apparatus of entrenched intelligence, military, financial and commercial bureaucracy — the “deep state” — that simply did not exist in the 19th century.
But it is also reasonable to wonder whether Obama was ever able to see past the predefined terms of 21st-century political discourse, as Lincoln was able, however briefly, to leap beyond 19th-century conceptions of rights, law and justice. Obama has never questioned the endless worldwide “war” against a nebulous non-state enemy called “terrorism.” (Philosopher Alain Badiou has pointed out that “war” was a word that previously signified military conflict between states, and now seems to be a meaningless term of art designed to make Americans feel impressed by their own majesty.) Indeed, he has pursued that “war” in devious and imaginative new ways.
Obama is highly skilled at delivering Democratic Party rhetoric about reducing economic inequality and limiting the political influence of bankers and big corporations. (Don’t get me wrong: Those positions are clearly preferable to the alternative.) But I see no signs that he has ever questioned the fundamental logic of neoliberal economics, in which Wall Street banks and those who run them are the disinterested guardians of public prosperity, too big to fail and too important to face punishment. Or the logic that dictates fiscal “austerity” and ever lower tax rates as fundamentally virtuous, and that insists on outsourcing all sorts of government functions to the private sector, at immense public expense and often with disastrous results.
Obama came to the White House amid the financial crash of the Great Recession, a moral and existential crisis nearly as big as the Depression faced by FDR, although nowhere near the scale of the armed rebellion faced by Lincoln. As many people have noted, he essentially reappointed the same people who had wrecked the economy, in a new configuration. Maybe he could have dealt with it no better than he did, for internal or external reasons. Maybe no president, or at least no president who could conceivably get elected, could have done more. You don’t make it to that point in American politics if you are likely to announce that we’re no longer having an imaginary war against an imaginary enemy and we’re no longer having an economy based on the superior moral virtue of the rich.
But the three or four minutes Obama spent talking about our poisoned and broken political system on Tuesday — to a chamber that suddenly fell dead quiet — dwarfed the rest of his speech. With eloquence and wit and tangible sadness, he compared his own efforts to redirect the course of our nation’s history to our two most famous presidents since George Washington, the two great individual change-agents of the last two centuries. And he told us he had failed.