Obama’s Last State Of The Union Plot A True Course for 2016

In last year’s State of the Union, Obama opened by telling the American people he wanted his speech to focus less on “a checklist of proposals and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.” This year he basically cut and pasted that line, starting off by promising Congress and viewers that he would “go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead.” Such laid back, colloquial language was dispersed throughout Barack “4th quarter” Obama’s speech. Just because his style was relaxed and informal doesn’t mean his speech was bereft of vision and substance.

From the start, you could tell he felt compelled to set the direction for the progressive cause. He knows that big advances are coming. They are tantalizingly close to being within his legacy. While he may not be there for the culmination of many of these policies, Obama wanted this speech to be a touchstone for many of those accomplishments. Ever the man in control, and with the media spotlight slipping away from him, for now, he wants to be the compass for the next (hopefully) Democratic president.

Let me be the first to admit, these speeches are notoriously tough to excel at (and often tough to watch). There’s so much to unpack, so many demographics to appeal to. As Zach Silk wrote to me during the speech, “every sentence has a constituency. And even with all that said some constituency is pissed they didn’t get mentioned.”

Obama did some flexing in front of his colleagues, where he proceeded to essentially say “I told you so” to his doubters. He flaunted gas prices, talked about the recovery, and the robust jobs growth. He touted these successes for their due applause, but he didn’t dwell on them for long. He didn’t want to upset the economic anxieties that so many Americans currently feel. This sentence in particular highlights the tension inherent within this section of the speech:

For the past 7 years, our goal has been a growing economy that works better for everybody. We’ve made progress. But we need to make more.

From here, Obama really emphasized the idea of “choices.” He noted how optimistic he was for the future, but only if we make the right choices. This was most notable during the economic portion of his speech. Obama mentioned the necessity of having something similar to Nick Hanauer and David Rolf’s Shared Security system, where all of the employment benefits traditionally provided by a full-time salaried job are detached from the employer and made “prorated, portable, and universal.” As the president pointed out, “that’s what the Affordable Care Act is all about.” He knows that creating more fluid benefits systems is going to be imperative for growing the American middle class. I must say, I believe his proposed trajectory is true.

His foreign policy part of the speech was vintage Obama. Rational, direct, and laced with bits of realism and liberalism. He focused almost exclusively on American “hard power,” boasting “the United States is the most powerful nation on earth. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. It’s not even close.” The dude was telling Republicans he knows this nation isn’t crumbling. He warned against nation building, arguing that this always leads to quagmires. “It is the lesson of Vietnam, it’s the lesson of Iraq and we should have learned it by now.” Perfect.

But more than anything else, Obama was himself.  Just like in his first year addressing the nation. The man will be remembered extremely fondly within the progressive movement. As a millennial, he will forever be the captain of 21st century American progressivism to me. Did he get it all right? Of course not. And thirty years from now we’ll probably have progressives stating he wasn’t a beacon for a brighter democracy. But within the context of 2016, he delivered a speech and a presidency that sets a wonderful course for progressivism. And you could tell he felt confident about our chances. He sounded like he trusted us to get us there:

“Because of you. I believe in you. That’s why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong.”

Nick Cassella

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