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More than 20 presidential candidates have told the story of President Obama’s America for the past year.
On Tuesday, Obama had the country’s microphone to himself for perhaps the final time and told his own story, admitting some of the problems that his potential successors lament but, in effect, suggesting they are glossing over a long list of accomplishments.
Obama’s final State of the Union speech was framed around four issues that America must address over the next decade, concerns the president acknowledged he could not fully resolve in his tenure.
Obama highlighted the growing inequality between the rich and the rest of America, the challenge of new technology that is putting some Americans out of work, a resurgent Russia, the rise of ISIS, the inability to build a consensus around tackling climate change and a political system that is, at times, dysfunctional.
“Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” the president said. “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
Obama included several lines that seemed to be direct rebuttals of the rhetoric of Donald Trump, an acknowledgment that the mogul seems to have convinced some Americans of his controversial views.
“We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” Obama said. “This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong.”
He added, “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. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
And Obama, who won the presidency on a campaign of hope and change, was forced to urge Americans to be optimistic again about the potential of politics.
“It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless,” he said …. “So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen.”
At the same time, Obama used his four subject areas that the U.S. must grapple with (the economy, climate change, national security and divisive politics) to do a lot of bragging. Obama was rejecting the perspective of Trump, who has said America is failing and he will restore it to greatness, and candidates in both parties who argue the economy is struggling.
“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period,” he said. “It’s not even close. It’s not even close. It’s not even close.”
He added, “If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden.”
“Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war,” he noted, listing another foreign policy accomplishment.
On the economy, the president argued, “the United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history.”
“Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad either,” he said at another point in the speech.
Obama’s speech was a marked contrast from the address he delivered in July 2004 that brought him to the attention of many Americans for the first time. That speech was short on policy but long on aspiration.
“There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America,” Obama told a crowd of Democrats in Boston at the party’s national convention that year.
He added, “The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”
On Tuesday, Obama bemoaned a country with not only red and blue states, but whose citizens are divided on which media outlets to consume and often view people with different political views as “motivated by malice.”
But even while divided, Obama argued the America he has led is thriving.
“It’s that spirit that made the progress of these past seven years possible. It’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. It’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector; how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans, and how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love,” Obama said.