Editor’s note: In his final State of the Union address, President Obama attempted to remind voters of his accomplishments, give shape to his legacy and set out a vision for America’s future. We asked two scholars who study the American presidency to react to the speech.
Jeffrey Alexander, Yale University
The last rational man turns off the lights
Obama’s State of the Union address demonstrated everything that has made him a good man, a civil politician, and virtuous leader – in the eyes of half the citizens in the United States. He evoked a yearning idealism for a united civil sphere, but only half the American people were listening. The other half view Obama as the most polarizing, uncivil politician on earth.
The president declared that “the bonds of solidarity beyond politics are the things that really matter in a democracy,” and that “our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.” Obama was recalling the great hopes of his inspiring 2008 campaign, a time when he memorably said: “We are not red states or blue states but the United States of America.”
But this was nostalgia, descriptive not of what he has accomplished but of his failure.
“That’s one of the few regrets of my presidency,” he admitted, “that our politics have become even more filled with rancor, that we are further divided than when I came to office.”
So, Obama acknowledged his failure.
Telling a tale
The chattering class likes to talk about narrative. According to this fashion, politicians don’t talk about issues, analyze facts and describe policies. They tell a story about the facts, engaging in verbal and visual performances. What they want is to persuade voters they are somewhere in the middle of a temporal plot, an arc rooted in promising beginnings, tense and often agonizingly conflicted middles, and explosive, often cathartic finales, which provide lessons and relief.
Obama certainly tried to tell a story during his final State of the Union, performing optimism and urging an exhausted and increasingly cynical electorate to look with confidence to the future.
Entering the last final down-sloping arc of his presidency, he urged his fellow Americans not to look back in anger, but to see how far we had come and also how far we have to go.
Pundits will say Obama’s State of the Union fell flat and Americans didn’t buy it. But half of Americans did buy it, and still do, and would again if he were still able to campaign.
There are two structural problems that undermined the persuasive power of Obama’s last effort to make a great speech. The first is that he told a story of hope and accomplishment, and urged confidence, at a point in the electoral cycle when rhetoric about deepening crisis and future resurrection are almost always the order of the day. The Republican candidates gnaw at this bone, and so does Bernie Sanders. Hillary can’t go there. She was at the center of Obama’s administration and sits at the head of the establishment high table. That’s her problem.
The other structural problem is this: You can’t project a powerful narrative without an antagonist, a punching bag for the conquering hero to beat. But Obama refused to fight. He deployed humor, often seeming rueful and detached. Rather than divide, he tried one last time to to gather up the whole.
You could feel the air going out of the chamber. You could feel letdown: no tension, no build-up, no catharsis. It was a reasonable man up there last night. He went out on his own terms. His accomplishments are, for many, real and significant – health care, economic recovery, climate change, education, nuclear arms. Spilling blood to rescue foreign countries doesn’t work; just look at Vietnam and Iraq. We must reject any politics that targets people’s race and religion. The world respects us for our diversity and our openness. When politicians insult Muslims, it doesn’t make us safer; it betrays who we are as a country.
But these are premises and policies, not inspiring promises. When Obama looked to the future, there was slackness, not tension. He detailed four big areas Americans need to work on, but he admitted, “none of this is going to happen overnight.” Where’s the promise, where’s the salvation? Where’s the brash hero who walked on the world stage in 2007 and 2008?
The liberal MSNBC partisan Chris Matthews observed, “I think it’s a sad ending.” I think so too.
Jeffrey Alexander is the author, with Bernadette Jaworsky, of Obama Power and The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. With Elizabeth Breese and Maria Luengo, he is also the editor of The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered: Technology, Economy, Culture.
Mabel Berezin, Cornell University
Obama’s four freedoms
In his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama gave his own version of Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms address. I am guessing that it was not lost on Obama that January 6 was the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s iconic speech.
Obama began with projects that he vowed to keep fighting for – immigration reform, gun reform (surprisingly underplayed in this speech), paid family leave and, of course, referred to those “hard-working families” that every American politician routinely acknowledges these days.
Then, Obama jumped into a narrative of his vision (skillfully weaving in his accomplishments) that managed to touch on every trope of American political culture. He expressed his high hopes for the future, “the next frontier” and said that his ambitions targeted all that was ahead for the United States. I could not help but think of Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” as Obama praised America’s optimism, its work ethic, the diversity of its people – the sources of its national security.
“Extraordinary change” was all around us, and change is hard, Obama said. It creates unemployment, even “terrorists,” but change also presents opportunities, if we embrace, “choose” change with “confidence” and not fear.
Roosevelt’s speech juxtaposed freedom from want and from fear against freedom of expression and religion. In Obama’s speech, freedom from want became a “fair shot at opportunity” and a workplace where the “rules work for all.” Innovation and small business are components of this. Keeping America safe is a negation of fear. Obama included a plea for the efficacy of “right thing to do” diplomacy, but also a caution against natural disasters such as climate change and Ebola. He reassured us that “America is the most powerful nation on earth!” and ended by calling for a reinvigoration of American participatory democracy, and a plea for citizens to take their freedom of expression seriously.
The media reported widely that Obama sought to use his last address to cement his legacy. And what better way to do it than use his rhetorical skills to tie his legacy to the New Deal – the closest America has come to social democracy. Given the passionate issues of the day, there could have been more fire – but Obama shows emotion only on the campaign trail, and it has been a long time since we have seen the Obama of the 2004 Democratic Convention.
Did he succeed beyond a Democratic base? Perhaps not in tomorrow’s headlines, but maybe 75 years from now.
Mabel Berezin is the author of Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security, and Populism in the New Europe and Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Interwar Italy.