President Obama delivered a forceful State of the Union address Tuesday night in which he defended his record, set the stage for a Democratic successor to carry on his work, and -- above all -- warned Americans to steer clear of Donald Trump’s bullying nativism.
The president isn’t on the ballot in 2016, and he made only passing references to the election. But the race was clearly on the president’s mind and he will undoubtedly loom large in it. Hillary Clinton is currently pitching herself as the last line of defense for the president’s achievements while every Republican is running on a pledge to tear them down.
In many ways, the speech functioned as a point-by-point rejoinder to the long list of attacks Republican candidates have levied against his administration during the presidential race. It was almost as if, after a yearlong Friars Club Roast, the president finally got to take the podium and rebut his tormentors.
“[A]ll the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air,” Obama said at one point. “So is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.”
He was loose, dispensing with formality to go off script to offer “tips” to those campaigning in Iowa, mock critics who deny climate change and lament Washington’s partisan deadlock. He took credit for gas falling under $2 a gallon, for the 14 million jobs created under his watch and for the falling deficit. In doing so, he offered a blueprint for the next Democratic nominee to defend his record.
But there was a deadly serious undercurrent to the speech, especially when it turned to the politics of Trump, whose rise appears to have genuinely shaken the president. Without ever mentioning his name, Obama repeatedly decried the billionaire’s hostile rhetoric and proposals regarding immigrants and Muslims as an empty, misguided and un-American response to the challenges faced by the country at home and abroad.
The president recounted a long line of politicians across many eras “who told us to fear the future, who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control,” and were ultimately rejected by history.
He urged Americans to “reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion” and said that doing so was not “political correctness,” a clear reference to Trump’s defining buzzword.
“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, 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,” the president said. “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.”
In taking on Trumpism, Obama acknowledged Americans’ frustration, but urged them to direct it elsewhere when it came to presidential politics. Specifically, he asked them to look toward reining in the Wall Street investors, corporations and big money conservative donors that the Democratic field is targeting in their own campaign speeches.
“Food Stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did,” Obama said. "Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns.”
Always keenly aware of history and his place in it, Obama acknowledged his failure to prevent the current dark turn in politics while warning that it still had to be confronted. "It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said, even suggesting that a greater president like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Delano Roosevelt might have done better.
With reasonably strong approval ratings and an ability to excite Democratic base voters, Obama will be one his party’s most powerful spokespeople and fundraisers this year. He’s likely to play both elder statesman and attack dog for the party’s nominee and candidates for Congress and governorships.
Aware of that power, he’s already begun leveraging it to push Democrats on gun control, warning he will not campaign for any Democrat who does support his gun agenda.
Clinton especially has tied herself to Obama’s presidency, promising voters her presidency will Obama-plus. “America is better because of @POTUS' leadership. Proud to call him my friend. Let’s build on his progress,” she said on Twitter just before Obama’s speech.
Her top rival for the nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was in the chamber for Tuesday night’s address, has had a more complicated relationship with the president. Much like the liberal base he’s tapped into, Sanders seems conflicted between embracing the president and being disappointed Obama did not go far enough in delivering the change he promised.
Sanders’s normally very active Twitter account was silent during the two hours of Obama’s remarks. “Tonight’s speech was important. The president reminded us not to be afraid of change, but to wield it to improve the lives of all Americans,” he tweeted after the speech.
It perhaps wasn’t surprising that Obama’s speech was about setting up a contrast with Trump and the politics he represents heading into the election. More shocking was that the Republican response seemed to hit the exact same theme.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a potential vice presidential nominee and the daughter of Sikh Indian immigrants, delivered an impassioned plea for civility that often sounded like a rebuttal to Trump.
“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory,” Haley, a potential vice presidential nominee, said. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”
While calling for a tough line against illegal immigration, she also stressed the importance “welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion.”
In recounting her leadership after a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, which included a successful bipartisan effort to remove the Confederate Flag from state grounds, she echoed Obama’s call for a less divisive political conversation.
“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference,” she said. “That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume.”
True to that theme, there was a shocking lack of red meat in Haley’s response apart from a token mention of Obama’s “disastrous health care program” and a pledge that Republicans would “ make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around.”
At one point she even asked Republicans to acknowledge that they too had fed Americans’ frustrations with politics: “There is more than enough blame to go around,” she said.
The Republican presidential debates are aimed at whipping up primary voters, but the Republican State of the Union response is aimed at a general election audience. In that context, it seems significant that Haley made considerable effort to distance the party from its most strident -- and sometimes, most popular -- political rhetoric. In doing so, she offered perhaps the most vivid preview yet of how a Republican nominee might try to pivot to the center if they can shake Trump in the primaries.
Trump, for his part, didn’t seem too caught up in his starring role in the State of the Union across both parties.
“The #SOTU speech is really boring, slow lethargic - very hard to watch!” he tweeted.